Posts Tagged ‘Marcus Aurelius’

To what must we aspire, and why?


Well, Marc has done it again. Talking along, making all sort of sense – even wisdom (but don’t tell him I said so) – and then completely losing me as he finishes:

Expressions that were once current have gone out of use nowadays. Names, too, that were formerly household words are virtually archaisms today; Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Dentatus; or a little later, Scipio and Cato; Augustus too, and even Hadrian and Antoninus. All things fade into the storied past, and in a little while are shrouded in oblivion. Even to men whose lives were a blaze of glory this comes to pass; as for the rest, the breath is hardly out of them before, in Homer’s words, they are ‘lost to sight alike and hearsay’. What, after all, is immortal fame? An empty, hollow thing. To what, then, must we aspire? This, and this alone: the just thought, the unselfish act, the tongue that utters no falsehood, the temper that greets each passing event as something predestined, expected, and emanating from the One source and origin. (Meditations, book 4, paragraph 33)

Okay, I understand that the whole “One source” bit is consistent with the rest – he’s not doing a U-turn at the end. But it’s unnecessary. Yes, fame and recognition are fleeting. Yes, living for eternal glory is a futile pursuit. Yes, it is enough to aspire to think clearly, do good, and speak truth. And an even temper is certainly something worth cultivating.

But my even temper is not based on a belief in predestiny, in all things coming from a common source. It is simply based on the observation that level-headedness is the most powerful frame of mind from which to advance my understanding and improve my lot and that of my fellow humans.

Anyway, I continue to enjoy my discourse with Marc. We usually agree, and even when we don’t we have some fun exploring why not. (I don’t think that I’ve ever changed his mind, but that’s not the point.)

Postscript: I have discussed this with Darren, the mutual acquaintance who introduced me to Marc. Darren has spent more time with Marc and his crowd, and was able to cast the “one source” stuff in a light that I find easier to get on board with. I hope to discuss this (or perhaps invite Darren to tell you himself) in the not-too-distant future.



Marc on temperance


I quite like this stoic advice from my good friend Marc (Meditations, book 4, paragraph 22):

Never allow yourself to be swept off your feet; when an impulse stirs, see first that it will meet the claims of justice; when an impression forms, assure yourself first of its certainty.

This sounds like fine and noble advice. But I also get the impression that, to many of the more fiery folks I know, Marc’s words might seem to limit the human experience. Am I simply getting old, or are these words truly as wise as they seem?


Marc on opinion


So I was hanging out with my friend Marc again, and he had this to say about opinion (Meditations, book 3, paragraph 9):

Treat with respect the power you have to form an opinion. By it alone can the helmsman within you avoid forming opinions that are at variance with nature and with the constitution of a reasonable being.

Now, this far, I was on board. I was nodding along with Marc. We can’t help forming opinions; they are very useful in navigating the myriad choices around us. And yet, to paraphrase another pal of mine, Lao, “opinion is the barren flower of the Way” (from Tao Te Ching #38).
Once we form an opinion, it’s hard to unform or revise it, even in the face of good evidence. So we need to be careful in forming opinions in the first place.

So anyway, I’m nodding away, then Marc goes on like this:

From it you may look to attain circumspection, good relations with your fellow-men, and conformity with the will of heaven.

Good relations with fellow men – okay. (Marc has a very sexist bent to him, I’m afraid, but it’s easy enough to add “and women” or to substitute “fellow people” when listening to him.) But what about this “conformity with the will of heaven” bit?

Well, okay, I understand that Marc believes in the existence of gods. He says so very explicitly now and then. But it’s jarring to be listening to something that fits my own position so well, and then hear something about the “will of heaven” thrown in as part of the same thought.

I like Marc, so ultimately I’m not too bothered by the odd literal reference to “gods” or “heaven”; I can just focus on the valuable part of what he’s saying, and set aside the stuff I don’t accept.

But what about when I’m talking to someone else, or reading someone else’s writing, where I don’t have that easy relationship with the person? This aesthetic aversion to casual god-talk could make it more difficult for me to hear the positive value in what they’re saying.

Do you notice a similar tendency in yourself? Do you see it as a problem? How do you deal with it? Let me know.

Image credits:

Emblem of Stoicism created by DT Strain – see this blog post for an explanation of the elements in the symbol.

Yin and Yang symbol (associated with Taoism) from Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.


What loss is death?


From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), book 2, paragraph 14:

Were you to live three thousand years, or even thirty thousand, remember that the sole life which a man can lose is that which he is living at the moment; and furthermore, that he can have no other life except the one he loses. This means that the longest life and the shortest amount to the same thing. For the passing minute is every man’s equal possession, but what has once gone by is not ours. Our loss, therefore, is limited to that one fleeting instant, since no one can lose what is already past, nor yet what is still to come – for how can he be deprived of what he does not possess? So two things should be borne in mind. First, that all the cycles of creation since the beginning of time exhibit the same recurring pattern, so that it can make no difference whether you watch the identical spectacle for a hundred years, or for two hundred, or for ever. Secondly, that when the longest- and the shortest-lived of us come to die, their loss is precisely equal. For the sole thing of which any man can be deprived is the present; since this is all he owns, and nobody can lose what is not his.

Photo credit:

Photo of a bust of Marcus Aurelius, from the Wikimedia commons. Taken by user Bibi Saint-Pol and released into the public domain.

What time is yours?


Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) has some blunt words to share about procrastination, which I cannot disagree with*:

Think of your many years of procrastination; how the gods have repeatedly granted you further periods of grace, of which you have taken no advantage. It is time now to realize the nature of the universe to which you belong, and of that controlling Power whose offspring you are; and to understand that your time has a limit set to it. Use it, then, to advance your enlightenment; or it will be gone, and never in your power again. (Meditations, book 2, paragraph 4)

* Okay, so unlike the good emperor, I do not literally believe in any gods, nor a “controlling Power whose offspring [I am]”. But it’s no problem to set aside those bits, or read them metaphorically, while agreeing with the rest.

More from this ancient Stoic to come.

Photo credit:

Photo of a bust of the young Marcus Aurelius, from the Wikimedia commons. Taken by Marie-Lan Nguyen and released into the public domain.

Meet my new friend, Marc


I would like to introduce you all to my new friend, Marcus. I like to call him Marc, but posterity remembers him as Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), emperor of Rome and Stoic philosopher.

A mutual acquaintance introduced us – thankyou Darren!

Anyway, here’s Marc to introduce himself:

A little flesh, a little breath, and a Reason to rule all – that is myself. (Forget your books; no more hankering for them; they were no part of your equipment.) As one already on the threshold of death, think nothing of the first – of its viscid blood, its bones, its web of nerves and veins and arteries. The breath too; what is that? A whiff of wind; and not even the same wind, but every moment puffed out and drawn in anew. But the third, the Reason, the master – on this you must concentrate. Now that your hairs are grey, let it play the part of a slave no more, twitching puppetwise at every pull of self-interest; and cease to fume at destiny by ever grumbling at today or lamenting over tomorrow.

(from Meditations, book 2, paragraph 2)

I’ll be sharing more of Marc’s thoughts with you in the coming weeks – he’s full of pithy and though-provoking ideas.

Photo credit:

Photo of a bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius, from the Wikimedia commons. Taken by Ricardo André Frantz and released into the public domain.