Your Occasional Stoic — To Dread a Work of Nature is a Childish Thing

It is within our rational power to understand how swiftly all things vanish; how the corporeal forms are swallowed up in the material world, and the memory of them in the tide of ages.

Such are all the things of sense, especially those which ensnare us with pleasure or terrify us with pain, or those things which vanity trumpets in our ears. How mean, how despicable, how sordid, how perishable, how dead are they! What are they whose opinions and whose voices bestow renown? What is it to die? Your mind can tell you that, did a man think of it alone, and, by close consideration, strip it of its horrible trappings, he would no longer deem it anything but a work of Nature. To dread a work of Nature is a childish thing, and this is, indeed, not only Nature’s work, but beneficial to her.

Meditations 2:12

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The world remembers Alexander, but what good does that do him? What matter to him (or should have) was who surrounded him on his death bed. That’s what should matter to us all.

This is an interesting meditation as it puts together in one two of Marcus’s central themes – think of death often, and yet do not fear it, because what is the point of fearing something that comes for us all.

Your Occasional Stoic — Think of Death

Do every deed, speak every word, think every thought in the knowledge that you may end your days any moment. To depart from men, if there be really Gods, is nothing terrible. The Gods could bring no evil thing upon you. And if there be no Gods, or if they have no regard to human affairs, why should I desire to live in a world void of Gods and without Providence? But Gods there are, and assuredly they regard human affairs; and they have put it wholly in man’s power that he should not fall into what is truly evil. And of other things, had any been bad, they would have made provision also that man should have the power to avoid them altogether. For how can that make a man’s life worse which does not corrupt the man himself? Presiding Nature could not in ignorance, or in knowledge impotent, have omitted to prevent or rectify these things. She could not fail us so completely that, either from want of power or want of skill, good and evil should happen promiscuously to good men and to bad alike. Now death and life, glory and reproach, pain and pleasure, riches and poverty—all these happen equally to the good and to the bad. But, as they are neither honorable nor shameful, they are therefore neither good nor evil.

Meditations 2:11

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Marcus was obsessed with death, and rightly so, since death alone gives the rest of this any meaning. If the gods exists, then surely you want to meet them having lived an honorable life. If not, surely you do not want to be on your death bed wishing you’d done things differently. The outcome is the same, do what was in you control, live a moral life, and die in peace.

Your Occasional Stoic — Crime of Pleasure, Crimes of Passion

In comparing crimes together, as, according to the common idea, they may be compared, Theophrastus makes the true philosophical distinction — that those committed from motives of pleasure are more heinous than those which are due to passion. For he who is a prey to passion is clearly turned away from reason by some spasm and convulsion that takes him unawares. But he who sins from desire is conquered by pleasure, and so seems more incontinent and weaker in his vice.

Justly then, and in a truly philosophical spirit, he says that sin, for pleasure’s sake, is more wicked than sin which is due to pain. For the latter sinner was sinned against, and driven to passion by his wrongs, while the former set out to sin of his own volition, and was led into ill-doing by his own lust.

Meditations 2:10

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Theophrastus, a Greek native of Eresos in Lesbos, was the successor to Aristotle in the Peripatetic school.

This is an odd one from the meditations because its merely a citation to another thinker without any explicit commentary. Perhaps Marcus was trying to remind himself? Why? Was he struggling with crime of his own?

Your Occasional Stoic –No One Can Stop You

Remember always what the nature of the Universe is, what your own nature is, and how these are related. Remember what part your qualities are of the qualities of the whole, and that no one can prevent you from speaking and acting always in accordance with your nature.

Meditations 2:9

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The first part here is a bit confusing and relates, I think to Stoic cosmology that doesn’t really interest me, but the second, is one of Marcus’s central ideas, strongly put. You cannot be forced to act against your nature. You can be coerced, bribed, or cajoled, but always in every moment, you are in the driver seat.

We often don’t want to admit this to ourselves, because the power it gives us is terrifying. “I had to do X because my boss wanted me to”. No, you didn’t. You choose to do it. “No I had to because I need the job.” No, you want the job. Better put – I choose to do what my boss asked because I am not prepared to face the consequences of losing my job. That’s the real answer, and it might be the right one. But we need to own that, and it isn’t easy.

Your Occasional Stoic — Go On, Go On!

Go on, go on, my soul, to affront and dishonor yourself! The time that remains to honor yourself will not be long. Short is the life of every man; and yours is almost spent; spent, not honoring yourself, but seeking the happiness in the souls of other men.

Meditations 2:6

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Maybe the best, most succinct of the Meditations? Surely top ten. Stop worrying about others, get to the work of honoring yourself. Do it now. Time is running out.

Your Occasional Stoic — Unaffected dignity and Kindness

Hourly and earnestly strive, as a Roman and a man, to do what falls to your hand with perfect unaffected dignity, with kindliness, freedom and justice, and free your soul from every other imagination.

This you will accomplish if you perform each action as if it were your last, without willfulness, or any passionate aversion to what reason approves; without hypocrisy or selfishness, or discontent with the decrees of fate. You see how few things it is necessary to master in order that a man may live a smooth-flowing, God-fearing life. For of him that holds to these principles the Gods require no more.

Meditations 2:5

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Much of this repeats what we see over and over again in the Meditations – act with dignity, imagine death, etc. But there’s something else here that Marcus talks about much less frequently – kindness. Stoicism is (perhaps rightly) branded as a philosophy of detachment and coldness, but here Marcus is telling us not only to be strong, but also kind. I think many a modern admirer of stoicism could learn from this.

Your Occasional Stoic — Those In The Arena Are All That Matter, Those In The Stands Are None Of Our Concern.

Do not waste what remains of life in consideration about others, when it does not help the common good. Be sure you are neglecting other work if you busy yourself with what such a one is doing and why, with what he is saying, thinking, or scheming. Such things do nothing but divert you from the steadfast guardianship of your own soul. You should, then, in every train of thought shun all that is aimless or useless, and, above all, everything officious or malignant.

Accustom yourself to think, that, if any one were suddenly to ask you, Of what are you thinking-now? you could answer frankly and at once, Of so and so. Then it will plainly appear that you are all simplicity and kindliness, as befits a social being who takes little thought for enjoyment or any phantom pleasure; who spurns contentiousness, envy, or suspicion; or any passion the harboring of which one would blush to own. For such a man, who has finally determined to be henceforth among the best, is, as it were, a priest and minister of the Gods, using the spirit within him, which preserves a man unspotted from pleasure, unwounded by any pain, inaccessible to all insult, innocent of all evil; a champion in the noblest of all contests—the contest for victory over every passion. He is penetrated with justice; he welcomes with all his heart whatever befalls, or is appointed by Providence. He troubles not often, or ever without pressing public need, to consider what another may say, or do, or design. Solely intent upon his own conduct, ever mindful of his own concurrent part in the destiny of the Universe, he orders his conduct well, persuaded that his part is good.

For the lot appointed to every man is part of the law of all things as well as a law for him. He forgets not that all rational beings are akin, and that the love of all mankind is part of the nature of man; also that we must not think as all men think, but only as those who live a life accordant with nature.

As for those who live otherwise, he remembers always how they act at home and abroad, by night and by day, and how and with whom they are found in company. And so he cannot esteem the praise of such, for they enjoy not their own approbation.

Meditations 3:4

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This meditation include a rare reference to religion – the man who avoids the frivolous, and does not concern himself with the opinions of others, is like a priest of the gods. I don’t know about that, but I do know concerning yourself with the thoughts and opinions of the crowd leads only to ruin. Those in the arena are all that matter, those in the stands are none of our concern.

Your Occasional Stoic — Everything Dies Baby That’s A Fact

Hippocrates, who had healed many diseases, himself fell sick, and died. The Chaldeans foretold the fatal hours of multitudes, and afterwards fate carried them away. Alexander, Pompey, and Gaius Caesar, who so often razed whole cities, and cut off in battle so many myriads of horse and foot, at last departed from this life themselves. Heraclitus, after his many speculations on the conflagration of the world, died, swollen with water and plastered with cow-dung. Vermin destroyed Democritus; Socrates was killed by vermin of another sort. What of all this? You have gone aboard, made your voyage, come to harbor. Disembark: if into another life, there will God be also; if into nothingness, at least you will have done with bearing pain and pleasure, and with your slavery to this vessel so much meaner than its slave. For the soul is intelligence and deity, the body dust and corruption.

Meditations 3:3

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As the great Bruce Springsteen once said “Everything dies baby that’s a fact”. Here Marcus reminds us of that, again. Does he need to remind us that Heraclitus, the great philosopher, died covered in shit? Yes, because even the smartest, the strongest, the most powerful will die, and for most of us, it won’t be pretty. Accept that, internalize that, and choose to live a life worth leading.

Your Occasional Stoic — Contemplate The Fierce Jaws Of Beasts With No Less Delight Than The Works Of Sculptors Or Painters

Observe what grace and charm appear even in the accidents that accompany Nature’s work. Some parts of a loaf crack and burst in the baking; and this cracking, though in a manner contrary to the design of the baker, looks well and invites the appetite.

Figs, too, gape when at their ripest, and in ripe olives the approach to rotting adds a special beauty to the fruit. The droop of ears of corn, the bent brows of the lion, the foam at a boar’s mouth, and many other things, are far from attractive in themselves, yet, since they accompany the works of Nature, they make part of her adornment, and rejoice the beholder.

Thus, if a man be sensitive to such things, and have a more than common penetration into the constitution of the whole, almost nothing connected with Nature will fail to give him pleasure, as he comes to understand it. Such a man will contemplate in the real world the fierce jaws of wild beasts with no less delight than the works of sculptors or painters. With like pleasure will his chaste eyes behold the maturity and grace of old age in man or woman, and the inviting charms of youth. Many such things will strike him, things not credible to the many, but which come to him alone who is truly familiar with the works of Nature and near to her own heart.

Meditations 3:2

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Marcus is hailing the beauty of nature, even when it is not, what we would think of as traditionally beautiful, in part through what we know this less beautiful state represents. A olive close to rotting looks good not because its inherently aesthetically pleasing, but because we know such an olive will be delicious. If we’re in tune with our environment, we can see beauty everywhere, not just in the refined works of the painter or sculptor. It important here that one needs to “know nature”. What does that mean, exactly? Marcus doesn’t say. But surely it means in part living and tasting the olive.