Meditations, book VII

Marcus distributing bread to the people

Marcus distributing bread to the people

We are now more than half way through Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, or at the least what I think are the best highlights from that foundational Stoic book.

Near the beginning we find two statements of crucial Stoic precepts. At #5, Marcus says: “in whatever I do, either by myself or with another, I must direct my energies to this alone, that it shall conduce to the common interest and be in harmony with it,” and at #11 he writes: “To the rational animal the same act is at once according to nature and according to reason.” The two combined are a good reminder of the Stoic idea of cosmopolitanism (and its associated virtue of justice), as well as of what it means to live “according to nature“: it means human nature, and human nature is the nature of a social animal capable of rationality.

Marcus then reminds himself (at #22) that — as a consequence of the above — we need to treat our fellow human beings with charity: “It is peculiar to man to love even those who do wrong. And this happens, if when they do wrong it occurs to you that they are fellow humans and that they do wrong through ignorance and unintentionally, and that soon both of you will die; and above all, that the wrongdoer has done you no harm, for he has not made your ruling faculty worse than it was before.”

A bit later on (#27) he writes about how one should appreciate what one has, while at the same time not becoming too attached to it, a reminder of Epictetus’ famous dictum that we don’t actually own anything (or anyone), we just “borrow” them: “Think not so much of what you lack as of what you have: but of the things that you have, select the best, and then reflect how eagerly you would have sought them if you did not have them. At the same time, however, take care that you do not through being so pleased with them accustom yourself to overvalue them, so as to be disturbed if you should ever not have them.”

I like the reflection Marcus engages in at #61, using the metaphor of the wrestler for how one might conduct one’s life: “The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets that are sudden and unexpected.”

And at #62 we get some cogent advice on how to deal with people who offend or adulate us (the former, surprisingly, happened pretty often even to an Emperor!): “Constantly observe who those are whose approbation you wish to have, and what ruling principles they possess. For then you will neither blame those who offend involuntarily, nor will you want their approbation if you look to the sources of their opinions and appetites.” Indeed.

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Categories: Marcus

8 replies

  1. In #9 there is a surprisingly modern statement which sees a complete and orderly unity in nature:

    9. All things are implicated with one another, and the bond is holy; and there is hardly anything unconnected with any other thing. For things have been co-ordinated, and they combine to form the same universe [order]. For there is one universe made up of all things, and one god who pervades all things, and one substance, and one law, [one] common reason in all intelligent animals, and one truth; if indeed there is also one perfection for all animals which are of the same stock and participate in the same reason.

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  2. Virtue based upon false belief can only be temporary. In his Meditations, Roman emperor and stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, wrote:

    • “It is peculiar to man to love even those who do wrong. And this happens, if when they do wrong it occurs to you that they are fellow humans and that they do wrong through ignorance and unintentionally, and that soon both of you will die; and above all, that the wrongdoer has done you no harm, for he has not made your ruling faculty worse than it was before.”

    While it is true that people often harm out of “ignorance and unintentionally,” it is exaggerated and unsubstantiated to claim that they always act in this manner. If virtue depends upon our holding a benign impression of the motives of the wrongdoer, virtue will be short-lived.

    Furthermore, if our virtuous behavior depends on an assessment “that the wrongdoer has done you no harm, for he has not made your ruling faculty worse than it was before,” virtue lacks an adequate rationale. Why? Aurelius needlessly makes light of the effects of victimization, which can be traumatic, even life attenuating.

    While I appreciate Aurelius’ desire to treat even the worst evildoer with kindness, his rationale, based on the minimization of evil, cannot support that weight of our losses, grieving, and gnawing desire for justice.

    Let us not minimize loss and evil. Instead, let us see it for what it truly is, and yet forgive. But how? Only by knowing that an omnipotent God will dry our every tear in an eternity of love! Also, by knowing that, without His mercy, we could have performed even greater cruelties.

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  3. Daniel,

    since I don’t believe in God, that option isn’t a live one for me. So I’m stuck with Marcus’ magnanimity. And I disagree that he makes light of evil, he simply does not recognize that as a metaphysical category, just like Plato didn’t.

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  4. Massimo, By saying “that they do wrong through ignorance and unintentionally” minimizes the offense.

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  5. if when they do wrong it occurs to you that they are fellow humans and that they do wrong through ignorance and unintentionally,

    I think this means that if we were able to put ourselves in the other person’s mind we would understand why they acted and why the act seems justified from their point of view. Therefore we should show understanding of their behaviour.

    and above all, that the wrongdoer has done you no harm, for he has not made your ruling faculty worse than it was before

    To understand this one must understand who the writer is, the almighty and all powerful Roman emperor. He does not suffer harm but instead he dispenses justice and harm. He is immune to ordinary wrongdoing and has in his power the gift of forgiveness. One with such great power can afford and indeed should display the judicious exercise of magnanimity and forgiveness.

    for he has not made your ruling faculty worse

    I suspect this is a clever play on words. On the one hand it has the straightforward meaning that one’s cognitive faculty has not been diminished. On the other hand the phrase ‘ruling faculty’ is an indirect reference to the fact that his power to rule has not been diminished.

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  6. Daniel,

    “By saying “that they do wrong through ignorance and unintentionally” minimizes the offense”

    In the context of Stoic philosophy, no. And what labnut said.

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  7. If the virtuous life and morality are not based on God, they must be based on something else. Here are the only other conceivable choices:

    MORALITY BASED UPON OBJECTIVE MORAL LAW. In the same way that we have to conform to gravity and not jump off buildings, we have to also conform to moral law so that we do not injure ourselves or others. However, it does not seem that the concept of an objective moral law is sustainable without the concept of God:

    1. The analogy doesn’t hold up. We can easily bypass the effects of gravity by boarding a plane or even by bungee jumping. Why then shouldn’t we also do an end-run around the moral laws? In contrast to gravity, moral law would require an Enforcer.

    2. There are no sufficient reasons to adhere to an impersonal moral law. If our conscience bothers us, we can simply take a drug or go live in a culture where our aberrant behavior is acceptable.

    3. Even if an impersonal moral law is adequate, we would then have to explain where this intricately fine-tuned law came from and why it is universal and immutable in this universe of molecules-in-motion. We would also have to explain why we experience it in the way we do with guilt and shame, as if we had violated more than an impersonal law.

    MORALITY BASED ON PRAGMATISM – THE BENEFITS. If morality is not justified by higher principles, then it can only be justified by lower ones – how living the virtuous life beneficially impacts us. We live virtuously because of the psychological and physical payoffs. However, this rationale is clearly inadequate. If pragmatism is the bottom line – the ultimate reason for our choices – then pragmatism can also justify all forms of non-virtuous behavior. Lying to get a promotion will yield positive results for years.

    Many believe in God for strictly personal reasons. However, it is also morally rational to believe in God.

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  8. Daniel,

    there are a lot more options on the table, actually. Here is a good introduction: http://www.iep.utm.edu/metaethi/

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