Category: Philosophy

Aurelius, Books 9-12, Selections

9.1 Again, one who pursues pleasure as good and tries to avoid pain as an evil is acting irreverently; for it is inevitable that such a person must often find fault with universal nature for assigning something to good people or bad which is contrary tot their deserts, because it is so often the case that the bad devote themselves to pleasure and secure the things that give rise to it whilst the good encounter pain and what gives rise to that.

9.1 (later) … And when I say that universal nature employs these things in a neutral manner, I mean that, through the natural sequence of cause and effect, they happen indifferently to all that comes into being and whose existence is consequent upon a primeval impulse of providence, by which it set out from a first beginning to create the present order of things, having conceived certain principles of all that was to be, and assigned powers to generate the necessary substances and transformations and successions.

9.17 For the stone thrown into the air, it is no bad things to fall down again, as it was no good thing to rise up.

9.20 The wrongdoing of another should be left with its author.

9.35 Loss is nothing other than change; and change is the delight of universal nature, according to whose will all things come to pass.

10.2 Observe what your nature requires of you, in so far as you are merely governed by physical nature, and then do it and accede willingly, if your nature as a living creature will suffer no impairment. Next you must observe what you nature as a living creature requires of you, and accept that fully, if your nature as a rational living creature will suffer no impairment. Now every rational being is, by virtue of its rationality, also a social being. So apply these rules, and trouble yourself no further.

10.6 Whether there are merely atoms or a universal nature, let it be postulated first that I am a part of the whole which is governed by nature, let it be postulated first that I am a part of the whole which is governed by nature, and secondly, that I am bound by a tie of kinship to other parts of the same nature as myself. If I keep those thoughts in mind, I shall never, in so far as I am a part, be discontented with anything allotted to me from the whole, for nothing which benefits the whole brings harm to the part. For the whole contains nothing that is not to its own good, and while this is a characteristic that all natures share in common, universal nature has this further characteristic, that there is no cause outside itself which could compel it to generate anything harmful to itself. If I remember, then, that I am a part of such a whole, I shall be well contented with all that comes to pas; and in so far as I am bound by a tie of kinship to other parts of the same nature as myself, I will never act against the common interest, but rather, I will take proper account of my fellows, and direct every impulse to the common benefit and turn it away from anything that runs counter to it. And when this is duly accomplished, my life must necessarily follow a happy course, just as you would observe that any citizen’s life proceeds happily on its course when he makes his way through it performing actions which benefit his fellow-citizens and he welcomes whatever his city assigns to him.

10.14 To nature who bestows all things and takes them all back, a person of true culture and modesty will say: ‘Give what it please you to give, and take what it please you to take’; and say so in no defiant spirit, but as one who only obeys her designs and thinks nothing but good of her.

10.24 What does my governing faculty mean to me, and what use am I presently making of it, and to what end am I employing it? Is it devoid of reason? Is it detached and severed from sociability? Or is it so fused and blended with my poor flesh as to move at one with it?

10.29 As you engage in each particular action, stop and ask yourself this question: Is death something terrible because I would be deprived of this?

10.38 Remember that the power that pulls our strings is that which is hidden within us: that is the source of our action, and our life, and that, if one may say so, is the person himself. When picturing its nature, never confuse it with the fleshly vessel that encloses it or these organs molded around us; for these are mere instruments like an axe, differing only in this, that they are attached to us as part of ourselves. For in truth, these parts are of no more value without the cause that set them to work or brings them to rest than the shuttle to the weaver, or the pen to the writer, or the whip to the charioteer.

11.1 …Rather, in every part of the whole, and wherever its end overtakes it, it realizes what it has proposed to itself fully and completely, so that it can say, ‘All that is mine, I have.’ …

11.18 Summary of the 9 rules for life

  1. Consider how you stand in relation to others, and consider that nature is the power that governs the whole, and that lower things (like yourself) exist for the sake of the higher.
  2. Consider what kind of person others are, above all, in what compulsions they are subject to because of their opinions, and what pride they take in their acts.
  3. If other people are acting rightly, there is no reason for you to be angry or perturbed of spirit, but if they are acting wrongly, it is involuntary or because of ignorance, so you still should not be angry.
  4. Remember that you for your part are just as great a sinner as they.
  5. You cannot even be certain that what they are doing is wrong, because knowing what is right or wrong for someone else requires an enormous amount of context that many times you are not privy to.
  6. When you are annoyed beyond measure and losing all patience, remember that human life lasts but a moment, and that in a short while we shall all have been laid to rest.
  7. It is not people’s actions that trouble us, because those are the decisions of their governing faculties, but rather the opinions that our governing faculties form of their actions. So stop making judgments of others that end in only harming yourself. The only actions of which you should be ashamed are your own.
  8. The anger and distress we feel at other people acting badly give us more suffering than the things that the other people did in the first place.
  9. Kindness is invincible, if it’s genuine. If you can’t change someone, say nothing, but if you have the opportunity to correct someone gently and without sarcasm or public reproach, do so.
  10. Extra credit! (or in MA’s words, “if you will, accept this tenth gift from Apollo”), it’s foolish to expect the bad not to wrong, because that’s to wish the impossible. But to expect that they should do wrong to others, but to expect them to exempt you, is “senseless and tyrannical.”

11.21 …For as the mass of people are not of the same opinion on all the things that, in one way or another, are held to be good, but only on certain of them, namely, those that relate to the common good, the aim that we set for ourselves should therefore be the common and civic good. For he who directs every impulse of his own towards this end will be consistent in his actions and, by virtue of that, remain ever the same in himself.

12.7 Consider what you should be like in both body and soul when death overtakes you, and the brevity of life, and the abyss of time that yawns behind it and before it, and the fragility of everything material.

12.32 … “Imagine nothing to be of any great moment apart from this, that you should act as your own nature directs, and love what universal nature brings.”


Considerations:

  • In 9.1 MA condemns of those who “avoid pain as an evil.” By describing pain in such terms, it rather seems that he is sidestepping the problem of evil by saying that pain is not actually evil; it is merely the conflict of one’s will with the will of universal nature. By accepting what universal nature has set out for us, we can refuse to treat our misfortunes as pain. As helpful as this is psychologically in coping with pain, I’m not sure at what point this kind of argument, qua ethical argument, is simply callous, or at least so prima facie. “The suffering of one who’s parent was killed during the Holocaust is not actually real, it is merely them being irreverent by perturbing themselves over the assignments of universal nature.” This is not a convincing or helpful statement, it seems, at least emotionally. But perhaps such emotions are merely the work of the lower appetites? Perhaps I’m overthinking it and MA is not trying to make an ethical statement at all, or perhaps he would see such ethical concerns, separated from the brute fact of universal nature, as useless? He says later (see next quote), that universal nature created “both opposites.” There seems to be a strange Manicheanism about all this.
  • In 9.17 we seem to see more of this “nothing is actually good or evil, only our relationship to it,” sort of thing. Yet clearly he believes evil to exist, because the entire point of his book is to show the reader that acting and being well is better than acting selfishly, or cruelly, or in some other evil way.
  • In 10.6 I suppose I get my answer to the previous two questions. Marcus Aurelius leans into the problem of evil completely and concludes that evil doesn’t exist at all — it’s only our relationship to the world. Pain and suffering aren’t the result of evil, merely the result of a flawed relationship to the “will” (by which MA really just means “what exists”) of universal nature. Once we learn to accept that we are a part of a whole which by definition can contain nothing that is not to its own good, then by definition whatever is is good for me, since I am a part of the whole. At this first this seems to be quite an unconvincing argument, but as I think about it more, it’s not that different than the classical definition of evil as the privation of good. Properly speaking, of course evil doesn’t exist, it’s just a relationship to the good (if we define negation as a relationship). It doesn’t seem a great philosophical stretch to say that “our evil” (that is to say, either evil that we commit, actions against the common good, or evil that we receive in the form of pain and suffering) is simply a relationship that we have to the good, which is “what is.” Good is, quite literally, “all that is.” After all, evil isn’t, so what other choice do we have? As far as Christian theology goes, this makes sense so far, but then insert “God” for “universal nature” as seems to be appropriate when reading MA and I get quite confused again. If evil doesn’t exist, and the “evil” that we either commit or receive comes simply through a flawed relationship to nature, why would God bother with sending his Son to die? I thought there wasn’t anything to fix? Creation isn’t flawed after all, it’s just our perspective in it. Maybe we can bring the two together by saying that sin, the corruption of the image of God in us, is what gives us the flawed relationship to nature that causes both the commission and reception of evil. The “existence” of “evil” in this sense isn’t really a flaw in nature but it is a flaw “in us” (somehow? I mean, aren’t we parts of nature? So how can we bring pain and suffering on ourselves through our delusion, as MA seems to be suggesting?), and that flaw “in us” is what Christ solves through his incarnation. Our sin isn’t really “evil” in itself (remember! Evil can’t exist by definition!) it’s just “bad for us” and so part of good, which is all that is, is God’s decree that Christ redeem us. Perhaps the story of redemption is a temporal manifestation of the fact that evil can’t actually exist, since God exists outside of time. Ok, I think I’ve gone far enough down this speculative road for now.
  • In 10.29 MA asks “Is death something terrible because I would be deprived of this?” I feel that really this is at the psychological root of attraction to Stoic philosophy. I think some people would answer this question “no.” I am not one of those people, and so deeply appreciate Stoicism, without much emotional turmoil.
  • I don’t understand 11.21’s argument for attending to the common good at all. It seems to say that “most people don’t hold the same opinions, except for those that relate to the common good, and so you should concern yourself with the common good so that way you can be consistent throughout your life.” (What world do you live in? People agree about the common good? Maybe he means this in some kind of the same sense in which Aristotle said in his Ethics that everyone wants to be happy, and that therefore happiness is the end of ethics?)

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.

Aurelius, Book 7, Selections

7.3 …Keep in mind that a person’s worth is measured by the worth of what he has set his heart on.

7.16 Our governing faculty never disturbs its own peace; I mean, it never arouses fear in itself, or desire. But if someone else can arouse fear in it or cause it pain, let him do so, for on its own accounts it will not exercise its judgement in such a way as to deliver itself to such feelings. Let the body take care, if it can, that it should suffer no hurt; and let the soul, which can come to know pain and distress, speak out if it suffers any such thing; but that which judges these matters overall will suffer nothing at all, for it is not its way to make such a judgement. In itself the governing faculty wants for nothing, unless it creates the want for itself, and likewise, it is not subject to disturbance or hindrance, unless it disturbs or hinders itself.

7.28 Retire into yourself. The rational governing faculty is of such a nature that it finds it contentment in its own just conduct and the serenity that it gains from it.

7.29 Wipe out impression. No longer allow your passions to pull you around like a puppet. Confine your attention to the present time. Learn to recognize what is happening to yourself or another. Divide and analyse every given object into the material and the causal. Give thought to your last hour. Let the wrong committed by another remain where it first arose.

7.64 …And remember this too, that many disagreeable things are really just the same as pain although we do not perceive them to be, such as drowsiness, or the oppression that we feel in hot weather, or loss of appetite. So when something like this is beginning to distress you, say to yourself, ‘You are giving way to pain.’

7.65 See that you never feel towards misanthropes as such people feel towards the human race.

7.75 Universal nature set out to create a universe; and now it is either the case that all that comes to be does so as a necessary consequence of that, or else even the most important things, to which the governing faculty of the universe directs its own efforts, like outside the rule of reason. Remember this, and you will face many a trouble with a calmer mind.

Considerations:

  • In 7.75 does MA mean “reason” to be something like “pondering” or “judgement,” since it seems not be an attribute of the “governing faculty of the universe,” and is set against “necessary consequence”? On the contrary, might not God, the governing faculty of the universe, have something analogous to our “reason,” as MA means it here?
  • In 7.64 MA separates pain from the governing intellect, saying that “neither in so far as it is rational nor in so far as it is concerned for the common good does pain cause it any harm.” This seems very far separated from how we talk about emotional pain these days. Drawing a dividing line between the highest part of the soul (whatever it is to be called), and the emotions, appetites, thoughts, or “impression” as MA says in my translation, used to be a common and essential feature of philosophical psychology. But defining our identity as nothing more than the sum of our thoughts or emotions seems to be common now. Perhaps dangerous? See also 7.33.
  • MA alternates between speaking of ‘god’ or ‘the gods’ as personal beings who have plans for us, or who take care of us (cf. 7.70) yet other times (esp. when speaking of death) takes a more pantheistic view of what we would probably call the divine, the “governing faculty of the universe,” (7.75) which is truly eternal and “necessary” (as separate from rational or individual). ‘The gods’ do not pervade all things but the governing faculty of the universe does, and it’s that force which we are absorbed into or continue in after death, and for MA this provides meaning for life and death. At what point does this become identical to the way some modern atheists talk about “Life” in a semi-divine way?
  • 7.28 “Retire into yourself.” MA (along with other writers of a similar vein) talk about the actions of the governing faculty in a passive sense. The governing faculty separates itself from the appetites like a tired party guest departing for its home and a quiet cup of tea. Yet in practice “retiring into yourself” and separating your identity from pain and appetite is perhaps the most mentally exhausting work possible. Do eastern writers speak the same way? I know that in strains of Buddhism I’ve read about meditation is often spoken of in very active terms, but I don’t know enough to compare or contrast.