Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius was born in AD 121, died 180. He was Roman Emperor from 161-180. His main interest was Stoic philosophy. James Moore and Michael Silverthorne in their edition of the Meditations, state that ‘He lived up to all their [the Stoics] austerities, in spare diet, plain dress, and abstinence from all softness, effeminacy, and luxury; even from his being twelve years of age. Nature had formed him for the greatest dignity and constancy; with a singular firmness of soul; not to be moved by any accidents; so that most of the historians assure us, that scarce ever did joy or grief make any change in his countenance; and this gravity was ever easy to others; being free from all moroseness or pride.’

This sums up many of the main characteristics of Stoic philosophy. Our main reason for including them in our Applicant Summer Programme is that Stoicism might be a philosophy that can help people to get through a crisis like the Coronovirus pandemic. Above all else, it champions the idea of tranquillity of mind, or a soul at peace with all events in the world. We will quote a few passages from Aurelius now that exemplify this kind of thinking about how to live one’s life.

[People] seek retirements in the country, on the sea-coasts, or mountains: you too used to be fond of such things. But this is all from ignorance. A man may any hour he pleases retire into himself; and nowhere will he find a place of more quiet and leisure than in his own soul: especially if he has that furniture within, the view of which immediately gives him the fullest tranquillity. By tranquillity, I mean the most graceful order. Allow yourself continually this retirement, and refresh and renew yourself.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius expresses an idea of tranquility and graceful order which can be seen in this painting titled The Evening Star by J.M.W. Turner c.1830
The Evening Star by J.M.W. Turner c.1830

This is best done by seeing the universe and all life within it as one unified whole.

Consider always this universe as one living being or animal; with one material substance, and one spirit; and how all things are referred to the sense of this spirit; and how it’s will accomplishes all things, and how the whole concurs to the production of everything; and what a connexion and contexture there is among all things.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius expresses of the universe as one living being. This idea is expressed in this image of the Sombrero Galaxy.
The Sombrero Galaxy

Equally important, Stoics see events in the world as natural. They are not under human control, so why would anyone waste their time worrying about things that they couldn’t do anything about!

Time is a river, or violent torrent of things coming into being; each one, as soon as it has appeared, is swept off and disappears, and is succeeded by another, which is swept away in its turn. Whatever happens, is as natural, and customary, and known, as a rose in the spring, or fruit in summer. Such are diseases, deaths, calumnies, treacheries, and all which gives fools either joy or sorrow.

The knack to tranquillity is to remember that our lives are ultimately insignificant in the great scheme of things.

Remember how small a part you are of the universal nature; how small a moment of the whole duration is appointed for you; and how small a part you are of the object of universal fate, or providence.

Some things hasten into being: Some hasten to be no more: Some parts of things in being, are already extinct. These fluxes and changes renew the world; as the constant flux of particular periods of time, ever present to us new parts of the infinite eternity. In this vast river, what is there, among the things swept away with it, that one can value; since it can never be stopped or retained? As if one should grow fond of one of the sparrows, as it flies by us, when it shall be immediately out of sight. Such is the life of each man; an exhalation from blood, ‡ or a breathing in of air: and such as it is to draw in that air, which you are presently to breath out again every minute, such also is this whole power of breathing, which you received, as it were, yesterday, or the day before, when you were born; and must presently restore again to the source whence you derived it.

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, c.1490-1510

And here’s a test of one’s stoicism:

Can you be angry at one, whose arm-pits or whose breath are disagreeable? How can the man help it, who has such a mouth or such armpits? They must have a smell.

Stoics had a firm belief in the idea of an intelligent mind directing natural and human events.

Either the universe is a confused mass and intertexture, soon to be dispersed; or one orderly whole, under a providence. If the former; why should I wish to stay longer in this confused mixture; or be solicitous about anything, further than “how to become earth again”? Or, why should I be disturbed about anything? The dispersion will overtake me, do what I please. But, if the latter be the case; then I adore the governor of the whole, I stand firm, and trust in him.

True peace is therefore to be found in being at one with the universe, a peace that can only be obtained from inside one’s soul.

When you find yourself forced, as it were into some confusion or disturbance, by surrounding objects, return into yourself as speedily as you can; and depart no more from the true harmony of the soul, than what is absolutely unavoidable. You shall acquire greater power of retaining this harmony, by having frequent recourse to it.

You can read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius for free at Project Gutenberg.

This piece is part of our Liberal Arts Applicants Summer Programme