Meditations, book XII

the cosmos, galaxies in FornaxHere we are, then, at the end of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, though I’m sure I will have more to say about both the emperor himself (I’m currently reading his recent biography, by Frank McLynn, which incidentally appears to be both unfriendly and woefully ill informed about Stoicism).

Near the beginning of the chapter, Marcus reminds us (himself, really, since this was not originally meant for publication) of what is truly important: “if you shall be afraid not because you must some time cease to live, but if you shall fear never to have begun to live according to nature — then you will be a man worthy of the universe that has produced you, and you will cease to be a stranger in your native land.”

At #4 we find two nice paragraphs about people’s misguided obsession with what others think of them: “I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others … it is clear that we accord much more respect to what our neighbors think of us than to what we think of ourselves.”

The point, should be clear, is not that it’s good to ignore others’ opinions or criticisms regardless of their merits, but rather that our self esteem shouldn’t depend on something we clearly have no control over, and that accordingly we should treat at best as a preferred indifferent.

At #14 we find yet another “Providence or atoms” passage, which again highlights the fact that Stoicism is compatible with agnosticism about god (which, I hasten to add, does not mean Marcus himself was agnostic, he wasn’t): “Either there is a fatal necessity and invincible order, or a kind Providence, or a confusion without a purpose and without a director. If then there is an invincible necessity, why do you resist? But if there is a Providence that allows itself to be propitiated, make yourself worthy of the help of the divinity. But if there is a confusion without a governor, be content that in such a tempest you have yourself a certain ruling intelligence.” He takes up the same theme later on, at #24: “with respect to what may happen to you from without, consider that it happens either by chance or according to Providence, and you must neither blame chance nor accuse Providence.”

I simply find this to be one of the best reasons to embrace Stoicism as a modern: it is a clearly ecumenical philosophy, where one’s metaphysical allegiances matter much less, if at all, than one’s commitment to living ethically. As it ought to be, I am tempted to add.

At #17 and #20 we get some more eminently practical advice: “If it is not right, do not do it: if it is not true, do not say it. For let your impulse be in your own power … First, do nothing inconsiderately or without a purpose. Second, make your acts refer to nothing else but a social end.” The first bit highlights the Stoic commitment to ethical living, which includes a duty toward truth, while the second reminds us of the need to be mindful of what we do and why, and that whatever we do should be for the benefit of humanity.

Near the end of the book, Marcus engages in what is now referred to as the view from above meditation: “How small a part of the boundless and unfathomable time is assigned to every man! For it is very soon swallowed up in the eternal. And how small a part of the whole substance! And how small a part of the universal soul! And on what a small clod of the whole earth you creep! Reflecting on all this, consider nothing to be great except to act as your nature leads you, and to endure that which the common nature brings.” And what a wonderful way to close my occasional commentary on the Emperor’s handbook.

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