Even if you are going to live three thousand years, or as many times ten thousand years, remember that no man loses any other life than the one which he now lives, or lives any other life than the one he now loses. The longest and shortest are then to the same. For the present is the same to all, though that which perishes is not the same; and so that which is lost appears to be a mere moment. For a man cannot lose either the past or the future — for if you do not have it, how can anyone take it? Bear these two things in mind: all things from eternity are of like forms and come round in a circle, and that it makes no difference whether a man shall see the same things during a hundred years or two hundred, or an infinite time; and second, that the longest liver and he who will die soonest lose just the same. For the present is the only thing of which a man can be deprived, if it is true that this is the only thing which he has, and that a man cannot lose a thing if he has it not.
Meditations, 2. 14
Marcus was obsessed with Death and deals with it repeatedly throughout the mediations. Here, he takes an almost Buddhist view of it –be here now and all that. Do not mourn an unknown future, or a past already lived. What you have, what you can control, is today. Focus on this, and you need not fear death, because today is all anyone ever has.
Ok, fine, cool story bro. But as I’ve struggled with in many of these annotations, this radical insistence on the present isn’t practical. If I do not look forward to an old age I may not have, I cannot prepare for it. If I fail to prepare, I will fail to survive.
Herein lies one of the central contradictions in stoicism. It insists on controlling the moment, but if we fail to look past the moment, we’re doomed. Wrestling with this contradiction, finding the right balance, will be a subject of many, many of these annotations.
Nothing is more wretched than a man who is always out and about, running around in circles. As Pindar says, the poet says, “delving deep in the bowels of the earth” seeking by conjecture what is in the minds of his neighbors, without perceiving that it is sufficient to attend to the divinity within him. Reverence to the divine in himself consists in keeping it pure from passion and thoughtlessness, and dissatisfaction with what comes from gods and men. For the things from the gods merit veneration for their excellence; and the things from men should be dear to us by reason of kinship; and sometimes even, in a manner, they move our pity by reason of men’s ignorance of good and bad; this defect being not less than that which deprives us of the power of distinguishing things that are light and dark.
The Greek doesn’t actually name Pindar, it merely says the “poet” but the quopte is from a Pindar Fragment.
There’s a lot going on here – first the now standard cheerleading of Marcus to himself to be not like the gossiping neighbor, judging the motivations of his friends, but more like the stoic sage focused on his own, inner strength (and weaknesses).
Stay away from thoughtlessness, Marcus tells himself, again. Focus on facts. Don’t let you passions control your actions.
Still and also, pity the gossiping neighbor, the harm he does it not just to those he judges, but also to himself, moving farther from knowledge by failing to interrogate his own mind before worrying about the minds of others.
It is possible you may die today. Regulate every act and thought accordingly. But to die, if there are gods, is not a thing to be afraid of, for the gods will not involve you in evil. But if indeed the gods do not exist, or if they have no concern about human affairs, what is it to me to live in a universe devoid of gods or devoid of Providence? But they do exist, and they do care for human things, and they have put all the means in man’s power to enable him resist real evils. If after death there was anything evil, they would have provided man with the power to resist it. If it does not harm your character, how can it harm your life? Nature would not have overlooked such dangers through failing to recognize them nor is it possible that it has made so great a mistake, either through want of power or want of skill, that good and evil should happen indiscriminately to the good and the bad. But death certainly, and life, honor and dishonor, pain and pleasure, all these things equally happen to good men and bad, as these are things which make us neither better nor worse. Therefore, they are neither good nor evil.
We all die. We all feel pleasure, and pain. These feelings are universal and therefore devoid of moral weight. It is what we do with them that creates our character. It is how we accept the inevitability of death, the temporary nature of pleasure (and pain) which gives us our philosophical bearings.
Do not try to avoid the ups and downs of life, try to navigate them, not let them set you adrift.
This is part of an ongoing project of idiosyncratic translations and annotations to Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. You can see the whole series at Your Occasional Stoic.
Not observing what is in the mind of another a man has seldom been seen to be unhappy; but those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy.
Others are unknowable, you know this. It should not sadden you. But not knowing yourself? That’s a problem.
Like many of the meditations, its easy to read this as a call to meditation. Meditation, as we conceive it, would likely have been foreign to Aurelius, but a certain type of mindfulness? Of self-knowledge? I think that is what he is getting at here.
Eric H. Cline
The title says it all. This introduction is focused on the history of the war itself, and the changing nature of our knowledge of it, and doesn’t spend much time on the literary aspects of the works (Iliad, et al) which have arisen around the conflict. What we really know about the war is scarce and contradictory. We’re not even sure there was a single war. We are sure, today, that Troy existed, and we are sure wars were fought around it, but beyond that, its mere conjecture.
Incredibly, even that level of understanding of the war is of a very recent vintage. Before Schliemann’s discovery in the 1860s, most viewed the stories of the war, and of ancient troy, as legend. Turns out, as with most things about the classics, the story of Troy is much more complicated.
This book gives us a nice, brief overview of those complications looking at the archeological record of troy and ancient Greece in general as well as the stories and histories of the Greeks (i.e. the Iliad and other Homeric epics) as well as the stories and myths of the Hittite and other cultures.
A great starting point for someone (like me) looking to get into the Trojan War and the Iliad. Worth it for the bibliography alone.
Recommended for the enthusiast.
The walls of troy
Go head, keep doing wrong to yourself, my soul; but soon you will no longer have the opportunity of honoring yourself. Every man’s life is sufficient. But yours is nearly finished, and instead of respecting yourself, you place you happiness in the souls of others.
As with many of the mediations (and with many life lessons in general) it appears clichéd at first reading. But take the time, grapple with it a bit. How much of your validation are you putting in the hands of others? How is that working out for you? Perhaps stepping back, and honoring your own life isn’t so trite. Perhaps its worth something.
Remember how long you have put off these things. Remember how often you have received an opportunity from the gods, and not used it.
You must now at last perceive of what universe you are a part, what power rules you, and that a limit of time is fixed for you, which if you do not use it for clearing away the clouds from your mind, it will go and you will go with it and it will never return.
- I mean, duh. This is the kind exhortation we get over and over in the meditations (as we should). Time is running out, stop with the lollygagging. Enough of the procrastination. Do it now, before its too late.
- Passages like this are why some find the meditations simplistic, repetitive, or both. But they’re also why I find it inspiring and helpful. I KNOW to start today, but that doesn’t make DOING IT any easier. I need a reminder, just like Marcus did, that time is running out.
All that is from the gods is full of Providence. That which is from fortune is not separated from nature or without an interweaving and involution with the things which are ordered by Providence. From this all things flow; and there is besides necessity, and that which is for the advantage of the whole universe, of which you are a part.
But that is good for every part of nature which the nature of the whole brings, and what serves to maintain this nature. Now the universe is preserved, as by the changes of the elements, so by the changes of things compounded of the elements. Let these principles be enough for you. Let them always be fixed opinions. But cast away the thirst after books, that you will not die murmuring, but cheerfully, truly, and from thy heart thankful to the gods.
- There’s a hint here at stoic physics, an area of the philosophy that does not get much attention these days. Stoics believed the physical world was in a state of constant change with every object constantly changes and reconfiguring. They weren’t really that far off. Just like the universe
- I recently finished Edith Hamilton’s the Greek Way. Not a very good book, but it did include one insight that would have been obvious to a better educated reader than I – stoicism contains more than a whif of anti-intellectualism. Life, and living it well are what is important. Socratic type philosophizing for the sake of rumination and pointless learning is not valued.
Marcus is interested in ideas, but only so far as they allow him to perfect himself, not as an end until itself. Here, we differ. I like nothing more than a pointless intellectual exercise. Indeed pointless intellectual exercises are what I live for.
I would have a made a poor stoic (and a poor empororer).
The Greek Way
This is a really bad book. Like, really bad. Well, perhaps bad isn’t the right word. Hopelessly dated and irrelevant might be better. Hamilton (author of the excellent introduction to Mythology) attempts to explain the unique and superior nature of ancient Greece through a review of its culture and comparison to the uncultured “east”, ruled by dictators, or the culture of today. Hamilton is obsessed with placing national cultures in boxes (if you’re western, if you’re “eastern”, its all the same shit to her).
The “east” care not for the individual soul, as Buddhism is a religion of personal renunciation. The French are our times great thinkers, while the British are our great poets.
Seriously, she talks like this.
I almost feel bad for her, so myopic is her view of the world. There is Greece in its democratic glory, the flower of all that is good in our world. And then there is everyone else, easily placed in buckets by nationality or region, and dismissed as inferior. Its embarrassing to read and frankly I wish I’d stopped after the first fifty pages. The only reason I can think this would be worth your time is if you’re a scholar of outdated modes of relating to the classical world.
Otherwise, not recommended.
Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes
When I asked for a quick and dirty overview of the major Greek and Roman myths, everyone recommending this. I’m glad they did. When I started Mythology I was already half way through Hamilton’s the Greek Way, which is pretty bad, and I did not have high expectations for this one.
I was genuinely surprised with how good this was. All of the major (and minor) myths are explained here, clearly and logically with helpful introductions describing the major sources for the stories. You’ve got the interplay between the gods, the Trojan war, and the myths of the legendary houses and heroes of Ancient Greece. Its one stop shopping for classical stories.
It isn’t a scholarly work. It’s for the lay reader. But it’s exactly what you need if, say, you’re about to embark on a deep dive Homer and want to make sure you remember the lay of the land.