Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Books III & IV

Book III

If we could roughly summarize Book II as having the theme of 'day by day', we can roughly summarize Book III as having the theme of 'looking ahead'. As with Book II, Book III reflects on mortality, but it does so in particular by repeatedly considering what kind of life one should live for what is left of one's life. In a sense we can say it takes the ideas of Book II and stretches them out from daily life to our indeterminate future. Marcus, of course, is throughout talking to himself, even when I say 'we'.

We should keep in mind that even before we die our capacities might fade. We should also keep in mind that many of the charms of life are little things, not beautiful in themselves, that contribute to the excellence of the larger picture: this is true of the cracks on baked bread, the bursting of figs or the beauty of olives as they are about to decay, and true also "of ears of wheat as they bend to the ground, of the wrinkles of a lion's brow, of the foam flowing from a boar's mouth" (III, 2). It is this that lets us see what we are likely otherwise to miss, that there is a sort of freshness and new beauty in the aged, a rightness in its own way, given the larger scheme of things.

We spend too much time thinking about what other people are doing, worrying about their thoughts when it has nothing to do with the common good. This wastes what remains of our lives (4). We should seek "justice, truth, self-control, courage," that is, the life of Reason, because it is not appropriate for anything else "to stand in the way of what is reasonable and for the common good" (6). We should not treat what is inconsistent with virtue as being in any way beneficial to us (7), but instead respect our capacity to reason (9).

We should then describe things to ourselves in whatever way they actually are, seeing everything in its context (12); and we should, in addition always keep the essential ideas of Stoicism ready and 'on call' for whenever they might be useful (13), and not get lost in bookish wanderings (14).

We are made of body, soul, and mind; but the body we share with kind, the soul we share with wild beasts and catamites and people like Nero, and the mind with plotters and thieves. What do we have that rises above? What makes the good man? That

he loves and welcomes whatever happens to him and whatever his fate may bring, that he does not pollute the spirit established within his breast or confuse it with a mass of impressions and imaginings, but preserves it blameless, modestly following the divine, saying nothing but what is true, doing nothing but what is just. (16)

Pierre Hadot has noted that ancient philosophy is very concerned with what he calls spiritual exercises, little activities that help us to be better people. The Meditations, of course, is a book in which Marcus Aurelius is recording his own spiritual exercises. We have already seen this somewhat, but it becomes even more clear here in Book III, where the Emperor is engaging in a more systematic approach and summarizing some of the key spiritual exercises he thinks are important, and, even more than this, is actively reminding himself that he should focus on these spiritual activities and not "vague wanderings" (14).

Book IV

While Book III at least approached some sort of systematic discussion, Book IV begins the pattern that will be followed throughout the rest of the books, of shorter, more disconnected comments that formulate and reformulate the Stoic ideas with which Marcus Aurelius was concerned. Many of the sayings of Book IV are specifically on the theme of reason, but, of course, this topic connects with everything in Stoicism; Hadot notes, however, that Book IV carries over a number of themes from Books II and III (The Inner Citadel, p. 265).

As rational beings we should recognize our place in the cosmopolis:

If we have intelligence in common, so we have reason which makes us reasoning beings, and that practical reason which orders what we must or must not do; then the law too is common to us, and, if so, we are citizens; if so, we share a common government; if so,t he universes is, as it were, a city--for what other common government could one say is shared by all mankind? (IV, 4)

The cosmopolis is the city of Zeus (23), and we should have a sort of patriotic regard for it. Those who do not understand the universe's principles, however, are like foreigners in their own city, self-impose exiles (29). We should even think of the cosmos as a living being of interconnected parts (40).

Almost everything we know changes. The former times have passed (32), deeds become legend (33), as time is a river of things (43). Remembered and rememberer are both ephemeral (35). Everything is fleeting, so we should focus on what matters:

What is it which should earnestly concern us? this only: a just mind, actions for the common good, speech which never lies, and a disposition which welcomes all that happens as necessary and comprehensible, as flowing from a like origin and source. (33)

We should recognize that what does not make us worse cannot make our lives worse (8), and that everything which happens, is right (9). If something is bad for us, it is because we have judged it bad, so we should judge anything that could happen to good men and bad men alike as indifferent (39). When faced with apparent difficulty, we should think of it in this way: "this is no misfortune, but to endure it nobly is good fortune" (49).

There are, of course, quite a few other things here. For example: We should always be ready to do what reason shows best for humanity, but also be ready to change how we do things if someone puts us right (12). We should not be distracted by what our neighbors are doing and saying but should focus on what we ourselves are saying and doing (18). Beautiful things have their beauty in themselves; they do not get it from praise (20).

to be continued


  1. John West10:53 AM

    Thanks for writing the series on stoicism, Brandon.

  2. branemrys1:45 AM

    Glad you like it!


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