Stoic spiritual exercises: II, from the Meditations

from Action Philosophers, at
from Action Philosophers, at

We have recently looked at a number of Stoic exercises straight from the mouth of one of the great ones: Epictetus. He was, of course, a teacher, and his Enchiridion, on which I focused, was explicitly put together (by his student Arrian) as a quick guide to Stoic practice.

Here I present a second set of “spiritual” exercises, this time culled (with the help of my friend Greg Lopez, co-host of last year’s Stoic Camp) from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. There will inevitably be some overlap between the two sets, of course, but the contrast between Epictetus and Marcus will be instructive, as the latter was influenced by the former, and yet wrote the Meditations as a personal diary, not for publication. We are, therefore, glimpsing at what the emperor told himself he should and should not do, as a good Stoic.

As in part I, I will present the exercises in the order in which they appear in the original text, provide a brief explanation or commentary, and then quote the relevant passage. I hope that these two essays — which I will soon make available as a compact booklet for free download — will be helpful to fellow Stoics as a vademecum of sorts.

Morning meditation on others. This is a famous passage, displaying Marcus’ somewhat pessimistic view of humanity right up front. Nonetheless, the message is powerful, and can be adopted also by people with a more cheerful disposition (or at the least a sense of humor about the reality of things).

Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I, who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him. For we are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn. (Meditations II.1, see also X.13)

Keep at-hand principles. Here is advice to do precisely what I am attempting to do with this collection: create an easily accessible tool that reminds me, whenever needed, of what is really important and how to think about it. (Below, keep in mind that “divine” can just as well be interpreted as “natural” in Stoic parlance.)

As physicians have always their instruments and knives ready for cases that suddenly require their skill, so do you have principles ready for the understanding of things divine and human, and for doing everything, even the smallest, with a recollection of the bond that unites the divine and human to each other. (Meditations III.13, see also end of IV.3, V.16 and VII.2)

Why am I doing this? We are purposeful animals, and yet much of what we do seems to be not particularly well thought out. The Stoic advice is to consider carefully what we are doing and why. Life is short, make the best (i.e., the most virtuous) of it.

Let no act be done without a purpose, nor otherwise than according to the perfect principles of art. (Meditations IV.2, see also VIII.2)

Renunciation. Marcus here is talking about “indifferents,” that is things that may be preferred or dispreferred, but are not an intrinsic component of virtue — like wealth, material possessions, reputation, and the like. The suggestion is to train oneself to do without them, at the least from time to time, to both remind us that they are not crucial for eudaimonia, as well as to better appreciate them when we do have them.

The more of these things a man deprives himself of, or of other things like them, or even when he is deprived of any of them, the more patiently he endures the loss, just in the same degree he is a better man. (Meditations V.15)

Decomposition exercise. The one below is another famous excerpt from Marcus, where he prods himself to look at the basic constituents of things and actions, appreciating anew that they are material things to which all too often we attribute more importance than they do in fact have. To put things in context, the bit about sexual intercourse probably should not be interpreted as prudish (Marcus did, after all, have 13 children!), but rather as a check against lust for lust’s sake.

When we have meat before us and such eatables, we receive the impression that this is the dead body of a fish, and this is the dead body of a bird or of a pig; and again, that this Falernian is only a little grape juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool dyed with the blood of a shellfish; or, in the matter of sexual intercourse, that it is merely an internal attrition and the spasmodic expulsion of semen: such then are these impressions, and they reach the things themselves and penetrate them, and so we see the things as they truly are. Just in the same way ought we to act all through life, and where there are things that appear most worthy of our approbation, we ought to lay them bare and look at their worthlessness and strip them of all the words by which they are exalted. For outward show is a wonderful perverter of reason, and when you are most sure that you are employed about things worth your pains, it is then that it cheats you most. (Meditations VI.13, see also III.11, VIII.11, XI.2, XI.16 and XII.10)

Acknowledging others’ virtues. This is one version of the common Stoic idea of reminding oneself of role models, because virtue cannot be learned just by way of theory, it requires examples and practice.

When you wish to delight yourself, think of the virtues of those who live with you; for instance, the activity of one, the modesty of another, the liberality of a third, and some other good quality of a fourth. For nothing delights so much as the examples of the virtues when they are exhibited in the morals of those who live with us and present themselves in abundance, as far as is possible. Hence we must keep them before us. (Meditations VI.48, though also see all of book I)

Take another’s perspective. A wonderful exercise in humility, reminding us to step in another person’s shoes to at the least attempt to see things from their perspective, before passing judgment.

When a man has done you wrong, immediately consider with what opinion about good or evil he has done wrong. For when you have seen this, you will pity him, and will neither wonder nor be angry. For either you yourself think the same thing to be good that he does or another thing of the same kind. It is your duty then to pardon him. But if you do not think such things to be good or evil, you will more readily be well disposed to him who is in error. (Meditations VII.26, see also IX.34)

View from above. A classic Stoic exercise: seeing things from a distance helps us put them in the proper (cosmic) perspective.

You can rid yourself of many useless things among those that disturb you, for they lie entirely in your imagination; and you will then gain for yourself ample space by comprehending the whole universe in your mind, and by contemplating the eternity of time, and observing the rapid change of every part of everything, how short is the time from birth to dissolution, and the illimitable time before birth as well as the equally boundless time after dissolution. (Meditations IX.32, see also VII.48 and XII.24 — third exercise)

How did they (not) sin? Short, profound, and rather self-explanatory.

If any man has done wrong, the harm is his own. But perhaps he has not done wrong. (Meditations IX.38)

Keep change and death in mind. Change and death are inevitable, that is why we need to focus on what we do here and now, hic et nunc.

Acquire the contemplative way of seeing how all things change into one another, and constantly attend to it, and exercise yourself about this part of philosophy. For nothing is so much adapted to produce magnanimity. … Consider in what condition both in body and soul a man should be when he is overtaken by death; and consider the shortness of life, the boundless abyss of time past and future, the feebleness of all matter. (Meditations X.11 and XII.7, see also X.18, X.19 and X.29)

When offended… A handy reminder of how silly it is to get offended at someone else’s behavior or words.

When you are offended at any man’s fault, immediately turn to yourself and reflect in what manner you yourself have erred: for example, in thinking that money is a good thing or pleasure, or a bit of reputation, and the like. (Meditations X.30, see also IX.42)

Rebutting thoughts. Stoicism is often acknowledged as the forerunner of some of the most efficacious modern therapies, such as Victor Frankl’s logotherapy and Albert Ellis’ rational emotive behavior therapy. This passage could easily have been written by a modern counselor, inviting you to challenge your own thoughts, to argue with yourself, until you see things more clearly and begin to act accordingly.

There are four principal aberrations of the superior faculty against which you should be constantly on your guard, and when you have detected them, you should wipe them out and say on each occasion thus: this thought is not necessary; this tends to destroy social union; this which you are going to say comes not from the real thoughts — for you should consider it among the most absurd of things for a man not to speak from his real thoughts. But the fourth is when you shall reproach yourself for anything, for this is an evidence of the diviner part within you being overpowered and yielding to the less honorable and to the perishable part, the body, and to its gross pleasures. (Meditations XI.19)

Morning meditation on the cosmos. Lastly, an exercise that is a combination of physical and spiritual: at the least from time to time, get your butt off the bed before dawn, head out to a spot where you can see the Sun rise, and think about your place in the universe.

The Pythagoreans bid us in the morning look to the heavens that we may be reminded of those bodies that continually do the same things and in the same manner perform their work, and also be reminded of their purity and nudity. For there is no veil over a star. (Meditations XI.27)

5 thoughts on “Stoic spiritual exercises: II, from the Meditations

  1. Wonderful, thank you Massimo, and to Greg also. Most of the ones you have quoted are already in my little green book into which I prescribed all the most meaningful ones when I first encountered the Meditations a few years ago. Today I was about to recommend another useful quote from Marcus which has been on my fridge for some time, ideal for using when one hasn’t got one’s butt out of bed early enough to see the dawn! But when I went to my Meditations to reference it I couldn’t find it. How could it have disappeared I wondered? Surely Marcus did write “when you arise in the morning, think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love”? But no, he didn’t. I had cut it out from a very highly regarded English newspaper magazine in haste and never bothered to cross reference it with my text. So now I need to practise your exercise above under the heading “How did they (not) sin” and funnily enough this morning I was awake in time to see the sun rise.

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  2. Love your work Massimo….I find one of the most challenging things in my life has always been, questioning what I perceive to be the unacceptable action or conduct of others towards others and me. Having said that, how can I in one breath know how I should conduct myself but expect any different in others when choosing my company. It almost sounds like at times Marcus recommends accepting such people as company in our life. Where does one draw the line as to what is acceptable or not? I am by no means advocating I am superior or better than my company, although I know my life’s journey is to improve oneself in accordance with nature everyday, which I cannot say is the case for everybody.


  3. Mike,

    Ah, where does one draw the line indeed? I guess the answer comes from one’s wisdom. But from a Stoic perspective, of course, we only control our own actions and intentions, not other people’s, so we need to be charitable with them, or simply seek the best company possible (Epictetus is pretty explicit about the latter point).


  4. Thank to Massimo for another enlightening essay!

    Meditate the World of Man & Why the Roman State Fell

    Medidate the Cosmos. Look at its immensity, it intensity, its power, its indifference for what we are, or for what anything is. Thus meditate physics, because it provides us with eyes which can see beyond any horizon. Understand the beauty of the cosmos means that we have to provide meaning, because we need meaning. We need meaning, because we use meaning continually.

    Marcus Aurelius say people can be right, or wrong. But who provided with him, or anybody, with meaning to judge? The guardians of the theory of meaning. Not god (it does not exist), nor even nature, because nature is a given, not a look at what is given, let alone a way to change what is given. Those two latter aspects are characteristic of the genus Homo.

    Meaning can be wrong, not so much because it came from bad people, but from bad complexity full of evil details, the sort of things that what Marcus calls “unnecessary thoughts” can hunt (see below).

    The guardians of meaning are the top thinkers, at any given time, in any given place.

    So we have to look, and meditate, not just the Cosmos, and Physics, but the entire civilization of humanity. All of it. All of what it came from, and how it evolved: history in the greatest cultural sense.

    I want now to severely criticize the following passage of Marcus Aurelius kindly provided by Massimo:

    “There are four principal aberrations of the superior faculty against which you should be constantly on your guard, and when you have detected them, you should wipe them out and say on each occasion thus: this thought is not necessary; this tends to destroy social union; this which you are going to say comes not from the real thoughts — for you should consider it among the most absurd of things for a man not to speak from his real thoughts. But the fourth is when you shall reproach yourself for anything, for this is an evidence of the diviner part within you being overpowered and yielding to the less honorable and to the perishable part, the body, and to its gross pleasures. (Meditations XI.19)”

    “This thought is not necessary.” Says Marcus Aurelius. He calls the apparition of ‘unnecessary thought’ one of the “four principal aberrations”. When is a thought not necessary? Necessary for what? Necessary for been guided by only a few thoughts reigning over all the mind as Marcus Aurelius reigned over all men? In other words, intellectual fascism. The big “stoic” philosopher thinks like the general of an army (something he was)..

    Another of the Marcus’ “four principal aberrations” is lying… or more exactly “you should consider it among the most absurd of things for a man not to speak from his real thoughts”. In other words, the idea of “bad faith”. To trash and condemn Bad Faith is good. Many philosophers have done it, all the way up to Sartre. But then notice that Marcus Aurelius puts ‘unnecessary thoughts’ in the same category as “Bad Faith”.

    Marcus also frowns on as a ‘principal aberration’: Any “thought [which] destroys social union”. Thus “social union” is part of the leading intellectual principles which should rule on the realm of ideas, just as Marcus Aurelius rules on men.

    Now, any mental progress will disrupt brains, thus the “social union”. A society which knows “social union” and no revolution is condemned to stagnate mentality until the situation becomes uncontrollable. And this is exactly what happened to Rome the day Marcus died and his teenage son succeeded to him. A spectacular fall, driven by his son Commodus’ fateful decisions, in a matter of days, from which the Roman State never recovered.

    Marcus Aurelius had decided that embracing intellectual fascism was the highest behavior, the less “aberrant”. Thus Marcus imposed intellectual fascism for more than two decades on 25% of humanity. I would suggest removing that element, that drive to mental shrinkage, from modern stoicism.


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