Meditations: Books I-VI – By Marcus Aurelius

Leila Shahidi, Finnegan Holmes, Kishan Balaji, & Jamal Ross

Stubberfield

PSCI 3015

24 April 2021

Discussion Post: Meditations Book I-VI

Introduction

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is a book of personal thoughts of the emperor of Rome. In Book 1, he writes about what he has learned from people he viewed as mentors. In Book 2, he writes about his personal thoughts on stoic philosophy. In Book 3 he ponders the length and quality of human life as well as the concept of death. In Book 4 he encourages the practice of retreating into one’s mind, and he elaborates on his thoughts of death in previous books. In book 5 he discusses the balance between work and relaxation. In book 6 he explains his perspective on how the universe was made and humanities place in this universe.

Biography

Who Marcus Aurelius was is incredibly important to the value of the literature he produced. Marcus Aurelius was born in the year 121 AD and became the Roman Emperor in 161. He is considered to be the last of the Five Good Emperors. Much of his life and reign are argued by historians as there is minimal surviving evidence of specifics. It is known that he won several wars during his reign, notably against the Parthian Empire (mostly occupied by modern-day Iran). Marcus Aurelius is viewed in a historical context as essentially a “Philosopher King” similar to Plato’s conception. The accomplishments of Marcus Aurelius are significant to the value of his work because Mediations acts as a sort of diary for one of, if not the most powerful men in the world at the time. Meditations was never intended to be published and it is very rare to see the unfiltered personal thoughts of such an influential figure. Much of Mediations is believed to be written while Marcus Aurelius was planning military campaigns in eastern Europe.

This is a scene from the wildly imaginative movie, Gladiator (2000) where an elderly Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) talks to the main character Maximus (Russel Crowe). They share their views on Rome and look back on the successful conquests they have had.  

Book I 

In Book I of Meditations called Debts and Lessons, Marcus Aurelius writes about lessons he has learned from his influential peers and philosophers. One lesson he writes is from Apollonius which is being stoic in any circumstance that may arise, even extremely painful ones like losing a child because it allows one to be flexible, able to adapt to one’s fate. Similarly, he learns from Sextus to “live as nature requires” (Aurelius, 7), essentially accepting nature’s outcomes, and to be kind to others, even those that are unappealing people. One notable lesson is from who Aurelius calls his adopted father who he described to take advantage of material things if he had them, but never relied on them in case they were not there. Aurelius described him as someone who never paid much attention to his physical appearance or how he was perceived by others. He approached things logically instead of losing control of himself in difficult situations. He discusses desire in the sense that his adopted father did not have trouble avoiding things that most people have difficulties avoiding in life such as material goods that most people would indulge in like nice clothes or good food. Furthermore, at the end of book one, he discusses his thankfulness for not learning philosophy by charlatans or those that practice “writing treatises, or become absorbed by logic-chopping” (13). Philosophy aligns with Aurelius’ view that one should live life logically and with reason, separating what one can control and what one cannot. Philosophy, for him, is not about trivial details, rather a way to logically figure out main and relevant issues. 

Book II

In Book II of Meditations, Aurelius starts with “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly” (17). This statement connects deeply to the stoic philosophy that one must be comfortable with the worst case scenario and be able to adapt to that circumstance without losing control of one’s self. He emphasizes that being angry towards people is “unnatural” and that being prepared to face unappealing people and situations, it is less likely one will feel angry at others. Throughout this book, Aurelius emphasizes death and the importance of focusing one’s life on the present and the tasks one is assigned. He says, “do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life” (18) without allowing one’s emotions to take over them and to express the importance of discipline and how procrastination forces your mind to be a slave to impulsive desires. 

Aurelius talks about validation as well, and how the human mind can sometimes be conditioned to receive happiness from others validation, which he finds is disrespectful to one’s self. Aurelius and the stoic philosophy place importance on the mind and its thoughts being extremely important to the value of one’s life, shown when he says, “People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward are wasting their time, even when hard at work” (19). I think this quote shows that although completing tasks are important, the quality of one’s mind and thoughts are more important for living a valuable life. Furthermore, even if one labors all their lives, this does not mean they are living a good life, especially if one uses the money for useless material that only brings them higher status among their peers. He also makes a notable point about the act of sinning out of anger versus out of desire and claims that sinning out of anger is better than from desire because “the man motivated by desire, who is mastered by pleasure, seems somehow more self-indulgent, less manly in his sins” (19). He explains that someone who commits sin, whatever that might entail, by anger is more like a victim to the sin because it was induced by pain, rather than being “moved to action by desire” (20). An angry person who commits sin is more like a victim to quick impulsive behavior, rather than a person who has premeditated desires.

 In section 12, Aurelius writes that the material world will be gone and forgotten, as if they are dead. To notice and understand why this makes the material world quite insignificant is important for the quality of one’s mind. Moreover, one prominent aspect that Aurelius highlights in Meditations is the idea of death as being something people should not feel afraid of or attribute negative feelings towards. He explains that one should break down the idea of death for what it really is: “It’s nothing but a process of nature” (21) and one should “accept death in a cheerful spirit” (21). In this, he is suggesting that whatever nature entails is not something evil in and of itself. It is something to be accepted for what it is and never meant to be controlled. In terms of “the scientific project”, many people think that science is a way for humanity to control nature for their benefit. This is definitely prevalent today as humanity is constantly trying to change human life expectancy through science or produce technology that could alter nature in some way to benefit people. Scientific laws help individuals come to the truth, rather than making assumptions based on your own biased perceptions. Aurelius would claim that nature is not something to control, but something to succumb to because nature is ultimately humanity’s true ruler. His emphasis on death being near for anyone is premised on the idea of death being a part of nature that you cannot avoid but should accept and move on from. Aurelius also discusses the concept of time and that even if someone were to be able to live for three thousand years, the life being lived in the present moment is the same for everyone because it can be lost from everyone in an instant, the past and future, however, cannot be lost because, “how could you lose what you don’t have?” (21). 

This video provides stoicism in a nutshell but with a modern-day perspective. As capitalism becomes more and more prominent, so does several people’s obsession and admiration for material things. Because people have a tendency to want to control the external, capitalism seems to lead more people into using or buying material things as a way to control the external. It also leads many to continue to desire things such as wealth, that ultimately do not lead to ultimate happiness. There is also a connection between the education of citizens and democracy. Clearly, if most citizens of a state are conditioned to indulge and care about material things that do not bring happiness, and as a consequence rely even more on them, these citizens are not living a good life with logic and reason. This will cause the overall democracy to lack logic and reason, and it will also cause those who run to rule the state to be no better, if not worse, than the citizens themselves. What’s worse, is that those who run to rule the state will acquire attention and votes from feeding into the indulgence and lack of logic of the citizenry. 

Book III 

In book 3 of Meditations, we are presented with yet another instance surrounded by the aspect of death, or say the length of life. The qualities which are presented are something that is heavily examined to provide closure and a response to the length of life. Length of life was represented by how one lives one’s life and the quality of it all. Aurelius states, “living longer doesn’t guarantee a continued quality of life”. He focuses on what encapsulates the quality of life and the different internal and external elements that could potentially prosper or deviate the expansion and quality of life. An example from this section is dementia. He goes into great detail about the disease of Dementia and how it results in the loss of one’s reason.  Aurelius illustrated how different things in one life shape them into who they are and the discussions he had made for a better understanding of what was at hand. Aurelius says life is actually even shorter than we think. This ties back to his discussion of external elements and ailments, like Dementia. The mind and the body are one within each other providing and supporting one another. Separation of the mind and body leads to loss of reason presenting a space for a downward spiral of one’s ability to lead a “good life”. Throughout Meditations, Aurelius emphasizes living life and doing different things because life is ever-changing and goes on. Aurelius states, “do it now, whatever “it” may be”.  

Aurelius presents many great stances on the different things about life and how to go about it. Aurelius states, “Do not waste the remainder of thy life in thoughts about others, when thou dost not refer thy thoughts to some object of common utility”. This shows how one should not live in worry or doubt about others and their opinions about one another. Living in retrospect and review of others’ statements and opinions only leads to unnecessary stress and unhappiness. Furthermore, common utility represents the usefulness and ability of an individual. Aurelius brings in the aspect of the perfect idea of nature stating “Things that display full maturation and are on the verge of decay—bursting figs, ripe olives hanging next to rotting ones, old men and women”. This statement is to remind us of nature and the circle of life. The statement could also be applied to the state and how as time goes on things within power change and as one decision of decision-maker leaves or fades out another “new” decision is brought to fruition. This presents a complete regeneration of power within and leads to modern views and changes being addressed. 

Book IV 

This book of Mediations opens with Aurelius discussing how men take vacations from their day-to-day life. He describes those who go to “houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains” (Aurelius, Meditations Book 4) as “the most common sort of men.” (Aurelius, Meditations Book 4) He goes on to elaborate that one should seek refuge in one’s own mind and soul because one has ultimate control over one’s mind and therefore ultimate freedom. He summarizes this concept by writing “Remember to retire into this little territory of thy own, and above all do not distract or strain thyself, but be free, and look at things as a man, as a human being, as a citizen, as a mortal.” (Aurelius, Meditations Book 4)

Marcus Aurelius shares his thoughts on the concept of death. He believes that no man should fear death and that it is simply the opposite of being born. “Death is such as generation is, a mystery of nature; a composition out of the same elements, and a decomposition into the same.” He goes on to elaborate and say that death is simply a part of nature, and it is inevitable. If death was not inevitable and it was possible to live forever he says, “if a man will not have it so, he will not allow the fig-tree to have juice.” This means that death is inherent to nature and to go against it would deprive nature of part of its cycle. He encourages people to do good while they are alive. He touches on the concept of an afterlife with the statement “If souls continue to exist, how does the air contain them from eternity?- But how does the earth contain the bodies of those who have been buried from time so remote?” (Aurelius, Meditations, Book 4)  Aurelius also seems to be concerned with the concept of a legacy. He mentions that “Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Leonnatus, and a little after also Scipio and Cato, then Augustus, then also Hadrian and Antoninus. For all things soon pass away and become a mere tale, and complete oblivion soon buries them.” (Aurelius, Meditations, Book 4) This can be interpreted as he believes that even those with great legacies and fame will eventually fade into obscurity so there are other things one should try to accomplish with their life. 

Book V

This section of Mediations begins with Aurelius outlining the relationship between labor and rest. He states that like it is necessary to allocate time in the day for eating and drinking, it is also necessary to set aside time for work and leisure, that way these routines follow the principles of the person’s individual nature. Aurelius also explains that the attachment to either aspect is the same as doing a service and expecting to be thanked for it. He goes on to explain that the problem with having the expectation of a reward is the same as being attached to rest overwork or vice versa. Similarly, placing either the body or soul as more important than the other makes it difficult for one fully to recognize the relationship between the two. With that, Aurelius suggests that if prayers are offered to a divine, such prayers should be simple and straightforward, with the acknowledgment that nature dictates all.

The principle of a person’s own nature is addressed in this book as it goes on to explain the connection between a man’s own interests that both serve and are served by the common good, thus achieve the “good life”. The common good is the benefit of all and being able to address all interests presented. Aurelius states that certain animals and plants are the perfections of nature because they follow their own inherent nature. He tells himself to observe the behavior of other people similarly and without judgment. Aurelius reminds himself that no one can compel another to forget the nature of the universe, or to act against “my god and daimon.” He is then reassured that all is to the ultimate good, and he need not be upset by any adverse condition. In this argument, Aurelius exemplifies Stoic philosophy, which proposes an orderly universe. By allowing the right thought to guide action, a man can naturally perform their duty for which he has been created to carry out, just like the dogs, horse, bees, or fig trees Aurelius mentions. 

Book VI

This book focuses on the universe and how it unfolds over time. Aurelius explains this perspective by giving a number of examples that explore this phenomenon. He draws these examples from nature, the occupations from the highest emperors to the lowest laborers, and daily activities. According to Aurelius, ordinary people are distracted by the appearances of things and are influenced by superficial attributes that cause them to either praise or condemn others. This is akin to how people can fall under the influence of sophistry, as explained in our previous readings. Aurelius also states that it is curious that people spend so much time trying to figure out what others think of them, despite this being insignificant. To Aurelius, all that matters is what the individual thinks of himself. Aurelius returns to the idea that even the greatest of men die and that the important thing in life is to live through truth and justice and to consider the virtues of the living. This whole chapter reinforces the Stoic belief that certain conditions are placed upon all human beings by their fate. The only free will we have is either to accept those conditions or to reject them, which results in damage to both the individual and society. Aurelius’ goal in this book is to remember that distractions keep one from fulfilling one’s role as determined by fate. In totality, Aurelius informs us that everything from ethics to politics are entwined with the universe and operate through the stoic themself. 

Conclusion

Meditations provided readers with a deeper understanding of life by allowing for depictions and comparison to outline the length of life and death of an individual. Book one examined life’s lessons and the standpoint of Aurelius profoundly agreed with stoicism. Materialistic things are there for usage, but Aurelius learned to be sustainable of those material things were not there. Book two highlighted adaptation and the ability to address situations as time goes on to the best of one’s ability. This follows through to book three as Aurelius discusses life and what is important in one’s destiny and how things begin to decay painting readers a picture of the important things in life. Book four dives into the details of death reflecting from the latter and the length of life. In book four it is also discussed the strength and silence one’s mind and soul. Book five follows in the same manner and provides the reader with a different perspective on the balance of labor and rest. Comparing these opposing stances and providing how to balance life by working and knowing when one needs rest to rejuvenate for the following duty. Individuals’ own nature and realization of the “good life” was also present e in this chapter allowing for discussion to stem from excluding external judgment and reflecting on oneself. The final book provides a deep understanding of the universe and what it is offering. Aurelius addresses the superficial and materialistic desires one may present and how the importance of self-reflection.  Throughout each book of Meditations, Aurelius wanted to note the stressors of life and how to live a more fulfilling life throughout different duties and responsibilities presenting information about how important life is and how to live it to the fullest.