Ora Et Labora

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 to 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.”

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.”


  • 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?)