The Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν of Marcus Aurelius (literally Things to Himself, usually rendered as the Meditations) is one of the most important, beautiful, and profound texts in history: the philosophical reflections of an actual Roman emperor written in Greek.
The work is epigrammatic, a favorite style of mine. R.B. Rutherford uses the term pensées to refer to Marcus’s reflections, calling Pascal to mind–a recollection that is entirely appropriate.
Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic, and his Stoicism is naturally reflected in the work–but, happily, in a non-technical way.
The work is divided (though not by Marcus) into twelve books, and those books are further subdivided into small sections or “gobbets.” The first book is different from the rest, consisting of what he owes to various human figures as well as the gods. For that reason, it will be omitted from the following series.
“What series?” Thanks for asking. I’d like to go through the Meditations section by section, starting with 2.1, giving a new translation followed by some brief commentary. This commentary will mostly comprise observations arising directly from the text, i.e. it will not be a sustained dialogue with other scholars or even with the philosophical tradition; I envision it more as what one might call “Everyman Philosophy.” The series will likely be sporadic, and new entries will appear as I have time. I am not in a hurry.
As Rutherford points out, Marcus Aurelius appears to have intended these reflections for no one but himself. We are fortunate that they have survived, for they represent the thoughts of the most powerful man in the world, set down without pretense–except, of course, the pretense we use when we address ourselves.
For the sake of convenience, I use the text as found in the Loeb edition, edited by C.R. Haines (LCL 58) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1916).
Text and Translation
α΄. Ἕῶθεν προλέγειν ἑαυτῷ· συντεύξομαι περιέργῳ, ἀχαρίστῳ, ὑβριστῇ, δολερῷ, βασκάνῳ, ἀκοινωνήτῳ. πάντα ταῦτα συμβέβηκεν ἐκείνοις παρὰ τὴν ἄγνοιαν τῶν ἀγαθῶν καὶ κακῶν. ἐγὼ δὲ τεθεωρηκὼς τὴν φύσιν τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ, ὅτι καλόν, καὶ τοῦ κακοῦ, ὅτι αἰσχρόν, καὶ τὴν αὐτοῦ τοῦ ἁμαρτάνοντος φύσιν, ὅτι μοι συγγενής, οὐχὶ αἵματος ἢ σπέρματος τοῦ αὐτοῦ, ἀλλὰ νοῦ καὶ θείας ἀπομοίρας μέτοχος, οὔτε βλαβῆναι ὑπό τινος αὐτῶν δύναμαι· αἰσχρῷ γάρ με οὐδεὶς περιβαλεῖ· οὔτε ὀργίζεσθαι τῷ συγγενεῖ δύναμαι οὔτε ἀπέχθεσθαι αὐτῷ. γεγόναμεν γὰρ πρὸς συνεργίαν, ὡς πόδες, ὡς χεῖρες, ὡς βλέφαρα, ὡς οἱ στοῖχοι τῶν ἄνω καὶ κάτω ὀδόντων. τὸ οὖν ἀντιπράσσειν ἀλλήλοις παρὰ φύσιν· ἀντιπρακτικὸν δὲ τὸ ἀγανακτεῖν καὶ ἀποστρέφεσθαι.
2.1 At the beginning of the day, say to yourself: I will meet a busybody, an ingrate, a violent person, a deceptive person, an envious person, an antisocial person. All these things have happened to them on account of the ignorance of goods and evils. But I, having contemplated the nature of the good–that it is noble–and of the evil–that it is shameful–and the nature of the one who is in error about it–that he is of the same kind as I am, not as one who shares in the same blood or lineage, but in the same mind and portion of deity–cannot be harmed by any of them. For no one clothes me with what is shameful. Nor can I be angry at one who is of the same kind as I am or hate him. For we have been born for mutual aid, as feet, as hands, as eyes, as the rows of teeth above and below. Therefore, acting against each other is contrary to nature. But being indignant and rejecting others is to act against each other.
Marcus wants us to start each day with realistic expectations. For what is the source of so much of our discontent? Unrealistic expectations and vain hopes. Thus he says that you should tell yourself at the outset that the day will have sufficient trouble. Humanity is a laboratory of various vices, and you will encounter types of them all. (He does not say so, but you are probably a type of some of them yourself: if you have to start the day bucking yourself up to encounter others, consider that they might have to start the day doing the same in relation to you.)
But Marcus does not advise anger at others on account of their vices. Quite the opposite. He attributes their bad behavior to “ignorance” (ἄγνοιαν)–specifically, to the ignorance of the distinction between goods and evils. One might object that everyone has some knowledge of good and evil. Just so; but reflect on how often we make mistakes judging them. Humility is called for.
Marcus, on the other hand, claims that he himself does have a good grasp of the good and the evil, one coming from “contemplation” (τεθεωρηκὼς). His philosophical and ethical reflection has led him to a grasp of the “nature” (τὴν φύσιν) of things. Phusis is an important term, referring to what a thing really is, beneath all appearances. Marcus uses it three times in this sentence: he knows the nature of good, the nature of evil, and the nature of the evildoer.
Notice what this last means. What is he saying when he says that the one who errs is “of the same kind” (συγγενής) as he? He is referring to a common human nature that both of them share–a nature that has nothing to do with blood or lineage. Instead, it is based on a shared “mind” or “understanding” and “portion of deity” (νοῦ καὶ θείας ἀπομοίρας). Though Marcus is a Stoic, it is difficult not to hear an echo of the Christian doctrine of the unity of mankind based upon the shared image of God. (An echo, I note in passing, is the auditory equivalent of an image.)
Armed with this knowledge, Marcus says, he cannot be harmed by the evils of others. It is worth pausing to wonder how it is he arrives at this conclusion. The implication seems to be that, because he has an understanding of reality as it actually is, the walls of his mind’s citadel are unscalable by the siege engines of others’ distorted realities. For the Stoic, then, security comes from knowledge and mastery within; it is this that frees one from the tyranny of circumstance.
Nor are his ideals about his attitude toward others merely negative, e.g. “Do not be angry at others.” They require positive duties as well. To illustrate, Marcus uses a striking image: we are born for mutual aid of one another–for cooperation–as parts of the same body. Again, there is a correspondence with the Bible. For recall Paul’s description of the church in 1 Corinthians 12, where he uses precisely the same analogy of different members composing one body.
But it is more than just an analogy. It expresses something real, in Marcus’s view, about the fact (rather than just the figure) of human solidarity. Notice the “therefore” (οὖν) introducing the penultimate sentence, indicating a logical connection with what comes before. Because we are members of the same body, therefore acting against each other is, not just silly or unwise, but contrary to nature (παρὰ φύσιν). There is that word again, “nature,” that is, the way things really are.
It is here, in Stoicism, that we see what is probably the most insistent assertion in ancient philosophy of an actual–not just an imaginary or ideal–unity subsisting in the human race that transcends ethnicity and all boundaries of space and time. It is based on the likeness of our nature in its spiritual aspect; and it is one of the greatest legacies of Greco-Roman paganism.