Meditations, book VIII

Temple of Hercules, Amman citadel, Jordan
Temple of Hercules, Amman citadel, Jordan

The first section of the eighth book of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations features a question we should all ask ourselves, at several points in our lives:

“You have had experience of many wanderings without having found happiness anywhere, not in syllogisms, nor in wealth, nor in reputation, nor in enjoyment, nor anywhere. Where is it then? It is in doing what man’s nature requires.”

And by “man’s nature,” of course, the Stoics meant the nature of a rational social animal. In other words, for Marcus true meaning can be found only in contributing to the functioning of society, helping out fellow human beings. And the best way to achieve that is by applying our faculty of reason, to guide us toward the right things to do.

Sections 4 and 5 also give good advice: “4. Consider that men will do the same things even though you would burst with rage. 5. This is the chief thing: Do not be perturbed, for all things are according to the nature of the universal; and in a little time you will be nobody and nowhere, like Hadrian and Augustus.”

So, according to #4, if you apply reason to your predicament you will see that becoming enraged about things over which you have no control is senseless. And if you are still not happy about that, then #5 reminds you that, you know, it will all soon be over…

A bit later on, at #13, Marcus reminds himself of the basic approach of Stoicism, which is encapsulated by the three topoi: “Constantly and, if it be possible, on the occasion of every impression on the soul, apply to it the principles of physics, ethics, and dialectics” (where here “dialectics” stands for logic.)

He then goes back to what a rational social animal ought to do: “It brings satisfaction to a man to do the proper works of a man. Now it is a proper work of a man to be benevolent to his own kind, to despise the movements of the senses, to form a just judgment of plausible appearances, and to take a survey of the nature of the universe and of the things that happen in it” (#26). I’m not so sure about “despising the movements of the senses,” Marcus was notoriously averse to even basic human pleasures (like food and sex), and I have argued before that that’s a bit too close to the Cynical end of the Stoic spectrum for my taste.

At #33 we find a gem that encapsulates the Stoic doctrine of preferred indifferents: “Receive wealth or prosperity without arrogance; and be ready to let it go.” So the idea is not to pursue an ascetic life style at all costs (like the Cynics did), but rather to treat the presence or absence of wealth as indifferent to one’s moral quality and pursuit of wisdom. If you do have wealth, by all means use it for the best; if you lose it, don’t regret it; if you don’t have it, do not envy it.

At #44 Marcus writes beautifully about yet another central idea of Stoicism: “those who rather pursue posthumous fame do not consider that the men of tomorrow will be exactly like these whom they cannot bear now; and both are mortal.” The pursuit of fame is foolish — though it follows from the kind of reasoning we have seen at #33 that if one is famous, then one ought to use his position for the betterment of humankind (and also that if one loses fame one should not regret it; as well as that if one never had fame to begin with one should not envy those who do).

There are many other stunning quotes and beautiful thoughts in book VIII, but let me conclude with the following one (at #48), which gave the title to a famous book on Stoicism by Pierre Hadot: “the mind that is free from passions is a citadel, for man has nothing more secure to which he can fly for refuge and repel every attack.”

One thought on “Meditations, book VIII

  1. In other words, for Marcus true meaning can be found only in contributing to the functioning of society, helping out fellow human beings.

    Agreed, but this needs to be spelled out more clearly.

    I see the ultimate human good as being a net contributor to society. I am a member of society and I derive great benefit from that membership. I have therefore a reciprocal duty to contribute to society, if possible more than I receive so that I am a net benefit to society, ensuring that it grows, thus providing increasing benefits, and to compensate for those who are net deficits to society. My contributions should foster its harmony, values, productivity and aesthetics since all are necessary for society. At the same time I should do it in a compassionate way that recognises the needs of the unfortunate. I should do it in a loving way that reinforces family and strengthens the bonds of friendship. I should do it in a responsible way, recognising the needs of others and of society.

    This I suggest is a simple, coherent narrative of human good that is available to all. Each person can contribute according to his means, station, aptitude and skills.

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