Aurelius, Book 8, Selections

8.10 Regret is a kind of self-reproach for having let something useful pass you by. Now the good is necessarily a useful thing, and something that a truly good person should make his special concern; but no such person would feel regret at having let a pleasure pass him by; so pleasure should be regarded as neither useful nor good.

8.14 With everyone you meet, begin at once by asking yourself, ‘What ideas does this person hold on human goods and ills?’ For if he holds particular views on pleasure and pain and the causes of each, and no reputation and disrepute, and life and death, it will not seem extraordinary or strange to me if he acts in some particular way, and I shall remember that he is constrained to act as he does.

8.16 Remember that to change your mind and follow somebody who puts you on the right course is nonetheless a free action; for it is your own action, effected in accordance with your own impulse and judgement, and, indeed, your own reason.

8.27 We have three relationships: the first to the vessel that encloses us, the second to the divine cause, the source of all that befalls every being, and the third to those who live alongside us.

8.47 If you suffer distress because of some external cause, it is not the thing itself that troubles you but your judgement on it, and it is within your power to cancel that judgement at any moment.

8.48 …By virtue of this, a mind free from passions is a mighty citadel; for man has no stronghold more secure to which he can retreat and remain unassailable ever after. One who has failed to see this is merely ignorant, but one who has seen it and fails to take refuge is beyond the aid of fortune.

8.55 Taken generally, evil does no harm to the universe, and in each particular case, it does no harm to another, but only to the person who has been granted the power to be delivered from it as soon as he himself makes that choice.

8.59 Human beings are here for the sake of one another; either instruct them, then, or put up with them.

Considerations:

  • In 8.10 MA delivers a kind of syllogism on pleasure vs. the good, showing that the passing by of pleasure is not worth feeling regret over, because no “truly good person” would feel concern at the passing of pleasure, and therefore pleasure is not “useful.” This seems to be a circular argument because I would have to accept either 1) that no truly good person is the sort of person to feel regret at the passing of pleasure, as MA defines both “pleasure” and “regret,” or 2) that pleasure is neither good nor useful, and that this is why it follows that no truly good person would feel regret over the passing of a pleasure. Either way it seems that though presented as a syllogism this is really just a tautological observation following from prior assumptions about the nature of both pleasure and regret.
  • In 8.14, as elsewhere, MA rationalizes the “good” person’s frustration with those who are not good by reminding the reader that such people are “constrained” in their actions by their beliefs. This seems odd, given that it would seem that the entire point of MA’s work is to persuade the reader that their actions are not, in fact, constrained, but that they can choose whatever they like, retiring into the citadel of their mind and thus freeing themselves from the constraint of enslavement to the passions. But perhaps this is itself just what MA is getting at. Because a couple of paragraphs later he says that “Remember that to change your mind and follow somebody who puts you on the right course is nonetheless a free action.” From this I gather that MA views our actions as in some measure determined by our beliefs, but our beliefs to be in some measure the result of free will (and thus ends up sounding much like Jonathan Edwards). Nevertheless the juxtaposition of the unwise man being “constrained” in his unwise actions (and therefore not really “choosing” evil in way in which a good man “chooses” good), and the wise man who chooses good as is proper to his nature, is a strange one, and makes me think that I don’t really understand very well how MA thinks of the will.
  • In 8.48 a man who understands MA’s thesis about the citadel of the mind, but does not follow it, it “beyond the aid of fortune.” Is “fortune” here a figure of speech or something more substantive about the way the world works? I can’t help but think of the Catholic distinction between those who are outside the Church due to ignorance, and those who reject the Church’s teaching while knowing it to be the truth.

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