Friday, 22 February 2013

After Reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

Fragment of a bronze head of Marcus Aurelius,
2nd century CE
I recently read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations – a book I had long been curious about. The Meditations are essentially the spiritual diary of a Roman emperor and that in itself is interesting, better still, every now and again he writes with great wisdom, though reading the Meditations from cover to cover is not always very engaging. However, despite my respect for the Meditations, I will admit that the view expressed therein that the world is somehow fundamentally ordered and that the universe is ruled by some kind of divine and ultimately benevolent plan (see, eg, Books 8.5, and12.5) strikes me as deeply flawed. Try telling all the children who are periodically raped by their fathers in their own bedrooms that the universe is ruled by principals of justice and benevolent order. And how easy to live “according to nature” – this is another recurrent theme throughout the Meditations – when your nature is to be the emperor of Rome! When it comes to the power of (a pantheist or ultimate) God, as identified with the Stoic concept of the benevolent and ordered universe, I share the following concerns as expressed by Cicero:
“Either God wishes to remove evils and cannot, or he can do so and is unwilling, or he has neither the will nor the power, or he has both the will and the power. If he has the will but not the power he is a weakling, and this is not characteristic of God. If he has the power but not the will, he is grudging, and this is a trait equally foreign to God. If he has neither the will nor the power, he is both grudging and weak, and is therefore not divine. If he has both the will and the power (and this is the sole circumstance appropriate to God), what is the source of evils, or why does God not dispel them [Cicero, The Nature of the Gods, 3.65]?”
Put that another way – if God is so powerful why do horrible things happen again and again and again? To my mind there are only two plausible answers to this question: either because the universal God does not exist or this God does exist and allows awful things to happen because he is a cold bastard and is therefore not worthy of reverence. The beauty of polytheism, as I perceive it, is that the responsibility for bad things becomes diffused across the universe and the Gods are not always infallibly virtuous, perfect or powerful – they are just (usually) more virtuous, more perfect and more powerful than us, and that is why they deserve reverence, for we can learn from them, can be guided by them and may benefit from their intervention in our affairs. 

Putting the issues of a benevolent and ordered universe (or God) aside, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations do illuminate some fundamental problems associated with the human condition and deliver valuable insights as to how to achieve apatheia (a mind freed from disabling passions). These are often interesting and/or wise and well worth reading. Thus, here follows some of my favourite passages from the Meditations:
“Cast everything else aside, then, and hold to these few truths alone; and remember, furthermore, that each of us lives only in the present, this fleeting moment of time, and that the rest of one’s life has either already been lived or lies in an unknowable future. The space of each person’s existence is thus a little thing, and little too is the corner of the earth on which it is lived, and little too even the fame that endures for the longest; and even that is passed on from one poor mortal to another, all of whom will die in no great while … [Book 3.10]” 
“… among the precepts which you keep most closely at hand for frequent reference, let the following be included: firstly, that things of themselves have no hold on the mind, but stand motionless outside it, and all disturbances arise solely from the opinions within us, and secondly, that all that you presently behold will change in no time whatever and cease to exist; and constantly reflect on how many such changes you yourself have already witnessed [Book 4.3].”
“They cannot admire you for the sharpness of your mind. So be it, but there is much else of which you cannot say, ‘I have no gift for that.’ So display the qualities that are wholly within your power, sincerity, dignity, endurance, disdain for sensual pleasure, satisfaction with your lot, contentment with little, kindness, freedom, frugality, avoidance of idle chatter, and elevation of mind. Do you not see how many fine qualities you are already able to display, for which you can offer no excuse of want of natural talent or lack of aptitude? Or are you compelled to grumble, to be grasping, to flatter others, to heap criticism on your poor body, to be ingratiating, and boastful, and restless in your mind, because you were created without the necessary gifts? No, by the Gods … you should exercise yourself instead of neglecting your faults and taking comfort in your dullness [Book 5.5].”
“Constantly reflect on how swiftly all that exists and is coming to be is swept past us and disappears from sight. For substance is like a river in perpetual flow, and its activities are ever changing, and its causes infinite in their variations, and hardly anything at all stands still; and ever at our side is the immeasurable span of the past and the yawning gulf of the future, into which all things vanish away. Then how is he not a fool who in the midst of all this is puffed up with pride, or tormented, or bewails his lot as though his troubles will endure for any great while [Book 5.23]?”
“When you have savouries and fine dishes set before you, you will gain an idea of their nature if you tell yourself that this is the corpse of a fish, and that is the corpse of a bird or a pig, or again, that fine Falernian wine is merely grape-juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool dipped in the blood of a shellfish; and as for sexual intercourse, it is the friction of a piece of gut and, following a sort of convulsion, the expulsion of some mucus. Thoughts such as these reach through to things themselves and strike to the heart of them, allowing us to see them as they truly are. So follow this practice throughout your life, and where things seem most worthy of your approval, lay them naked … [Book 6.13].”
“Asia and Europe are mere corners of the universe; and by that measure, every ocean is a drop of water, and Mount Athos is a clod of earth; and the whole of present time is but a point in eternity. All is paltry, ever mutable, swift to vanish [Book 6.36].”
“All is in the course of change; and you yourself are constantly changing and, in a sense, passing away; and so too is the entire universe [Book 9.19].”
“No one can rob us of our free will, said Epictetus [Book 11.36].”
“All turns on judgment, and that rests with you. So when you will, pluck out the judgment, and then, as though you had passed the headland, the sea is calm, and all is still, and there is not a wave in the bay [Book 12.22].”

Written by M. Sentia Figula. Find me at neo polytheistRoman Pagan and on Facebook.


  1. "...strikes me as deeply flawed. Try telling all the children..."
    The "tell it to the holocaust victims" argument is rudimentary thinking, but Marcus reaps spiritual insight from much higher dimensions, which is for most people a hard nut to crack.
    "...when your nature is to be the emperor of Rome!"
    Argumentum ad hominem! Another bad...

    1. I know Stoicism is popular and this post was always a risk in that sense, but it doesn't bother me if you/people disagree - each to themselves. I respect your affection for it and hope you will respect my lack of affection for it. If you would like to convince me of the truth of the Stoic world-view, in all friendliness, I invite you to point me in the direction of convincing arguments. Though if you are unable to explain how child abuse and the holocaust could be part of a divine plan worth venerating I doubt you will convince me.

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    1. And so the risk materialized after two years... ;)
      There is no risk in the painful process of realizing new horizons other than to one’s ego. But, for such fruitful achievement one should rather jump into contemplation with no judgment and conclusions whatsoever, and remain there as long as it takes…, instead of the “strikes me as deeply flawed” manner (with accent to “deeply”…). In most friendly manner, I would have suggested a rather humble and inquisitive approach in your post.
      I am not referring to man-made structures like to what extent was Aurelius a Stoic; I recognize him as a spiritual person who used philosophy as tool and could have used any to express universal spiritual insight. Spirituality is not about convincing or bashing one into it, but about experiencing it or not (what may shape into myth…). Aurelius is not expressing predefined arguments which cling to some confined, preset modality, as he transcends Stoicism. He is sharing his human, intimate spiritual wisdom which may differ in profoundness and cosmology, but is as truthful as it can get. Aurelius has been telling “… to Himself” that we are spirits who live in and change forms, that lifetime and shape is irrelevant to that, and that what matters starts from right attitude (“toward the Demon”) – which is universal spiritual wisdom… Holocaust Argument questions are omnipresent and belong to those who have not had experience to such depth Aurelius had… As Aurelius would put it, the majority of people would applaud to your "linear" Holocaust Argument, but having shown bravery in posting to “such risk in that sense”, you could and should reach for more than that (read: linear)…

    2. Thank you for your well thought out response☺ I appreciate it and I respect your point of view. I can see that Stoicism can lead to very deep insights and is a perfectly good spiritual path. I do agree that Aurelius and Stoicism have much to offer - in fact before I wrote this post I looked at Stoicism in a more humble and inquisitive way, as you call for (3D Paganism - Philosophy Matters. I confess though that it is long and not very well written).

      There is a hardness in saying “strikes me as deeply flawed” – you are right. I guess my views hardened after reading Aurelius because I had never really thought about this issue before (as regards whether there is a divine and benevolent plan that rules the universe). I guess I experience a frustration with the widespread acceptance of the idea of a benevolent and divine plan for the universe, so my harshness is a rebellion against the popularity of an idea I do not understand and can see no evidence for. However, I did not and do not conclude that Aurelius is unwise – I chose quotes of his that I liked for this post because I genuinely liked them and agree with them. However Stoicism is not for me. I don't believe in an all powerful God or universal plan that is ultimately for the good - I have given that much, much thought. Not just in an evening, but over the past couple of years. When I was younger I even believed in the Christian God (who they say has a divine plan), but … it just isn’t for me, even though it’s a perfectly good path for many people. I am fairly convinced that the ways to the truth are many, not few, that the Gods are many, not few, that the world is full of plurality, and that we are both shaped by the plural nature of the universe and have the ability to shape the plural nature of the universe – as Russell Crowe says “what we do in life echoes through eternity”. There is no plan, just ceaselessly changing actions and reactions, birth that leads to death and death that leads to new life. At most there is a regularity to the universe, a law perhaps, or a formula, but it does not tend towards benevolence, not as far as I can see, it is neither good nor bad. If I were to go into Monism I would rather go down the Neoplatonic route, which I confess I both admire and fail to understand because philosophy does my head in!

      You are right to correct me in terms of suggesting I look at things with less hardness and more openness – thank you. I will try to do this – including as regards Stoic thought!

    3. I appreciate the offer to dip into your “3D Paganism - Philosophy Matters”. I will accept the challenge and search for what is it that is “not very well written” :)
      Let’s first strip away all the philosophical robes for the sake of some fun... It is natural for someone who does not understand something beyond rational perception, to have a defensive stance, like you say you have. Your ego is the culprit. Those who have experienced transcendence beyond the ego obtain a certain insight which they all share and agree upon – a universal Truth… and they all speak of a “benevolent plan.” They state that life (from where you and I stand as two ego-individuals to what you and I are One-God-I Am) has no beginning and no ending, and that it is all about experiencing for learning (for some whichever reason we could need an entire cyclic Brahma life span to figure it)… Do not look for the evidence of that, because there isn't any in the form you can find as you stand. It will come to you when you are ready and you will recognize it and will understand why you haven’t been able to understand it before... You have heard of the theory that our universe is just part of the multiverse, pretty much like a drop in an endless ocean, and pretty much what we are as life form(s) which vibrate(s) through all dimensions... Don’t think in terms of one or many. Thinking about it only blocks, creates illusions or confines with definition what cannot be confined in order to be understood. Just be clearing your emotion, turn on your intuition and believe it will come as something which is part of you and you are part of. The less you block your vibration with thoughts and expectations, the higher you will vibrate along the benevolent plan, and higher the dimension you would reach… You come in a given form and timing, you create your own plan as you go and you could go eternally like that, but it is said that we are here to learn specific lessons, and the more we learn… Putting back our philosophical robes, I went through your view with mine, but just to tell you that my view does not reflect my experience (specially not the experience of Brahma life cycles, which I have no idea whatsoever who could have had such a high :P), but just me connecting my Lego! Btw., I am not saying I didn't like your philosophical robe… :D

    4. Thank you for your well thought out and sincere response. I do very much like your description on the way to approach the spiritual – the letting go process, and am grateful that you have reminded me of this kind of spirituality, but for me it is too much to cite a “benevolent plan” as a universal truth. I have studied Buddhism for years and such a notion has never arisen. In some of the more mystical lineages of the Mahayana there are beliefs about the Buddha having a grand plan to teach the mystic law of the universe (dharma) throughout the eons, but that is as close as it gets and I have never heard a Buddhist speak about it as a universal divine plan. According to this view Buddhahood is characterised as being perfectly awakened to and perfectly at one with the great mystic Dharma (law of the universe), but this approach is more Neoplatonic than Stoic. It is one thing to say that the universe ultimately comes together as a single living thing, and everything is but part of the whole, but another to say this “Oneness” that represents the universe in its entirety has a volitional plan. Of course ultimately I do not know the truth of these kinds of things – it is all speculation. I think I would rather acknowledge I just don’t know – that is the most honest path. Perhaps there is a divine plan, I don’t know, but I doubt it, but you are right to point out that it is good to keep an open mind.

    5. Yes, spiritual Buddhists also have their utopia; that we should all be sitting under a tree, but nature for some reason gives such people a very small door, at least these days… I agree that it may sound counterproductive to go beyond one’s own reality; into what may sound fantastic, because that would only activate imagination and hamper further development, but people may gain from being pushed... and we are social beings after all – we gain from learning from each other. I think we should fight linear thinking (Holocaust…) the moment we hear or sense that there is a higher reality, but also accept our reality as it is and on whichever level of material-spiritual it may be, and take it from there step by step, even though someone else might be calling it illusion in derogatory sense and even though we may be born amongst 1/6+ of world population with DU radiation, plastic and toxic waste and pollution, Monsanto food, no accessible water, potential tsunami or volcano in the neighborhood, or doctors who go around kidnapping body organs to be selling them in exemplar Germany... Both Buddha and Aurelius would give us the advice to live in the Now, strive toward Nonattachment and that Everything is Good. One does not have to be “perfectly” awakened to be incorporating all that, but perhaps it is just enough to believe in it to start with.

    6. I can't really add to that, but thank you for your thoughts (honestly):)
      Pax et Fortuna