As fortune would have it I am currently reading a very odd book recommended to me by an exceedingly erudite ancient friend who has a string of degrees after his name from some of the world’s renowned universities. While his professional occupation is that of a litigation lawyer he is exceptionally well-read and excels in matters literary of every description (as well as being a published author on some very narrow points of law). His literary curiosity is however vast. More than once he has steered me to scintillating manuscripts which, like the one I am reading now, go back a very long way. The book at hand is Marcus Aurelius’ “The Meditations” translated by George Long.
Meditations, literally “[that which is] to himself” is a series of personal writings by Marcus Aurelius Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD, recording his private notes to himself and ideas on Stoic philosophy. (For example) If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this that disturbs thee, but thy own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now. (VIII. 47, trans. George Long)
If I may be permitted a summary gloss on the composition I would say that it is a prescription for happiness which involves removal from materialism and sensuality and focuses on the present and doing what we all know in our hearts is best and wisest. While it sounds to be a tall order, the author’s renditions make it sound easy, almost distressingly axiomatic. Consider the following further quotations:
- Be like a rocky promontory against which the restless surf continually pounds; it stands fast while the churning sea is lulled to sleep at its feet. I hear you say, “How unlucky that this should happen to me!” Not at all! Say instead, “How lucky that I am not broken by what has happened and am not afraid of what is about to happen. The same blow might have struck anyone, but not many would have absorbed it without capitulation or complaint.” (IV. 49, trans. Hicks)
- A cucumber is bitter. Throw it away. There are briars in the road. Turn aside from them. This is enough. Do not add, “And why were such things made in the world?” (VIII. 50, trans. George Long)
- Soon you’ll be ashes or bones. A mere name at most—and even that is just a sound, an echo. The things we want in life are empty, stale, trivial. (V. 33, trans. Gregory Hays)
- Never regard something as doing you good if it makes you betray a trust or lose your sense of shame or makes you show hatred, suspicion, ill-will or hypocrisy or a desire for things best done behind closed doors. (III. 7, trans. Gregory Hays)
- Not to feel exasperated or defeated or despondent because your days aren’t packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human—however imperfectly—and fully embrace the pursuit you’ve embarked on. (V. 9, trans. Gregory Hays)
- Let opinion be taken away, and no man will think himself wronged. If no man shall think himself wronged, then is there no more any such thing as wrong. (IV. 7, trans. Méric Casaubon)
Lately (and perhaps even for years if I were to be completely honest) I have plagued myself with constant rumination upon what I perceive to be sometimes unsatisfactory relationships. Apparently finding fault with relationships of almost any nature is neither uncommon nor particularly difficult. Indeed one might easily say that it is the nature of relationships that they involve friction at one time or another. Even poetic versions of love frequently include reference to collisions. A fortiori lesser alliances such as business colleagues or even friends frequently encounter rough water. While it is certainly not considered unpopular to remove oneself from a painful confederacy, it is an option I don’t readily embrace. Whether because I am old-school or because I cling to the inertia of the moment, my preference is always – at least initially – to try to work things out. If however I cast my mind back upon failed associations it is plainly evident that I haven’t much patience with uncomfortable correspondence (though by the same token my reaction has never been either prolonged or violent).
There are of course certain relationships from which it is impossible to run and hide. Or at least they are horridly difficult to obscure. In those instances (which by the way it serves no purpose to delineate) the contemplation descends to an examination of the surrounding circumstances. I am naturally assuming that in these particulars there is greater advantage to moving on than thwarting the nexus whatever it may be. Yet not getting along can be a paralyzing situation. The idea of imparting purely rational considerations to the subject is often ludicrous. The pain of the heart can be powerfully persuasive. But if we are to uplift ourselves and pursue a dignity beyond that of a bothersome housefly then nothing short of intense application is required. Where Marcus Aurelius succeeds is his affirmation of the miscalculation to do otherwise, not because his suggested path contradicts our nature but rather because it fulfills it. Consider for example the practical moral value of the adage (attributed to Confucius) about vengefulness, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, first dig two graves“. There is moreover nothing trite about this disposition. Regrettably there is commingled with much personal anxiety the pollution not of others but of our own fabrication. I am not suggesting we deliberately contaminate ourselves but nonetheless we suffer the burden of our fears and apprehensions. Sometimes the remedy is nothing more complicated than a good night’s sleep or merely putting some temporary distance between oneself and another. It might seem that such strategy hardly qualifies as intellectual but it is a bald truth that organisms of whatever elevation occasionally require space. Even the tiniest particle can constitute an incalculable annoyance if stuck in a narrow interval.
My purpose here is not to prescribe the manner of conduct rather to observe that reflection can have an improving effect upon conduct. Much for example has been said about those who hold their tongue as those who speak their mind. Just as there are two ways to get down a river – either to know where to go or where not to go. The seeming binary nature of behaviour does not imply exclusivity, just alternative. Presently I yield to Marcus Aurelius’ thesis; viz., “Put an end once for all to this discussion of what a good man should be, and be one.“