We continue our series on Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. The Greek text below is that of the Loeb; the translation is my own.
Text and Translation
Μέμνησο, ἐκ πόσου ταῦτα ἀναβάλλῃ, καὶ ὁποσάκις προθεσμίας λαβὼν παρὰ τῶν θεῶν οὐ χρᾷ αὐταῖς. δεῖ δὲ ἤδη ποτὲ αἰσθέσθαι, τίνος κόσμου μέρος εἶ, καὶ τίνος διοικοῦντος τὸν κόσμον ἀπόρροια ὑπέστης· καὶ ὅτι ὅρος ἐστί σοι περιγεγραμμένος τοῦ χρόνου, ᾧ ἐὰν εἰς τὸ ἀπαιθριάσαι μὴ χρήσῃ, οἰχήσεται, καὶ οἰχήσῃ, καὶ αὖθις οὐκ ἔξεσται.
Remember how long you’ve been putting these things off for, and how many respites you’ve received from the gods without making use of them. But now is the most necessary time of all to perceive what cosmos you are a part of, and what governor of the cosmos you exist as an emanation of, and that you have a limit of circumscribed time which, if you do not use it to clear away the clouds, will be gone, and you will be gone, and it will not be possible again.
In this passage, Marcus gives himself a pep talk. It starts with an injunction to himself to “remember.” And what is he to remember? The objects are two: “how long you’ve been putting these things off for” and “how many respites you’ve received from the gods without making use of them.” What are “these things”? That seems to be explained by the second sentence, which we will come to momentarily.
But first we must reflect on his self-criticism over wasted time. The logic is this: Time is a gift of the gods. The gods have given Marcus many “respites” or reprieves–that is, they have allowed him to go on living. We know from a previous reflection that he is now old. Presumably, then, and putting two and two together, Marcus wakes one day to find his life hastening toward its end. He is suddenly brought up short by the realization he has not used the divine gift of time to its best effects. He has received respites “without making use of them.”
This reveals something important about what Marcus thinks is important. After all, he was the Roman Emperor, as in the ruler of the Roman Empire–maybe you’ve heard of it? It was kind of a big deal. But Marcus appears to make little of such externals in comparison to what he thinks really matters. Perhaps there is a lesson for us in this.
What does Marcus think really matters? Lucky for us, he tells us. As his life rolls inexorably toward its closing credits, he tells himself that he needs–not wants, needs–to understand three things. These are, first, how he fits into a whole greater than himself, for he is a “part” (μέρος) of the “cosmos” (κόσμου), a word that means, not “random matter in motion,” but “ordered whole”; second, how his own existence, too, is not random or bestial but divine; and third, how he is nevertheless not divine in the way that the governor of the cosmos is, for he remains a mortal whose time on earth is circumscribed without possibility of appeal.
In other words, what he finds most important as he contemplates his life and its end is the task of trying to gain self-knowledge and a knowledge of the whole, two objects of knowledge that are always indissolubly linked. If he is to miss his chance now, it will be gone forever–as will he himself.
This may strike the reader as noble, and yet as tragically noble. It may also strike the reader as ultimately futile. What is the point of gaining such knowledge if one is on the point of vanishing forever? One might suggest that it is an affirmation that knowledge is good in itself and for its own sake. Still, while this may be true, many will in the end find such a claim cold and existentially unsatisfying. If so, the very coldness of the claim raises questions of great moment as to whether there is an essential link between the quest for self-knowledge and whole-knowledge on the one hand, and a belief in the immortality of the soul or the resurrection of the body on the other–or whether, if positing an essential link between the two is too strong a claim, the latter at least provides a powerful motive force for the former.