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 — 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.

Your Occasional Stoic: Who decides your worth?

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.

-Meditation, 2.6

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.

Your Occasional Stoic – Friends, Teachers, Children

From Catulus: not to spurn a friend’s criticism, even if it may be unreasonable complaint, but to try to restore his usual feelings; to speak of one’s teachers with wholehearted gratitude, as is recorded of Domitius and Athenodotus; and a genuine love from children.

-Meditations, 1.13

My notes tell me* that the Catulus who Marcus is writing about here isn’t Gaius Valerius Catullus, the poet, or Gaius Lutatius Catulus, the statesman, or Quintus Lutatius Catulus the consul.  Rather it is Cinna Catulus, a Stoic whose lectures Marcus attended.

Domitius and Athennodotus?  Scholars are not sure.  Some believe Dominitius is Gnaeus Domitius Afer who taught the rhetorician Marcus Fabius Quintilian.  Athenodotus was one of the teacher’s Fronto, another rhetorician who appears repeatedly in the Meditations.  Not much else is known about these three and frankly it hardly matters.  Like many of the mediations, the lessons here are clear cut and simple:

  1. If your friend talks shit – get over;
  2. Be nice to your teachers; and
  3. Love kids.

It’s important to remember that as far as we know, Marcus didn’t write the mediations for publication, but rather as notes to himself, to inspire himself to behave better, as a man and as a leader.  Read with that in mind, the Mediations should seem less like boring moral prescriptions from you pedantic uncle and more like reminder to ourselves of how we should behave, and how we can strive to do better.

*In compiling these quotations I am relying on two editions of the meditations that Penguin Classics edition, translated by Martin Hammond and the Modern Library edition translated by Gregory Hays.  The Hammond edition has more extensive notes; the Hays edition is the translation I prefer.