April 15, 2020•2228 words
1. Not just that every day more of our life is used up and less
and less of it is left, but this too: if we live longer, can we be
sure our mind will still be up to understanding the world—to
the contemplation that aims at divine and human knowledge?
If our mind starts to wander, we’ll still go on breathing, go
on eating, imagining things, feeling urges and so on. But
getting the most out of ourselves, calculating where our duty
lies, analyzing what we hear and see, deciding whether it’s
time to call it quits—all the things you need a healthy mind
for . . . all those are gone.
So we need to hurry.
Not just because we move daily closer to death but also
because our understanding—our grasp of the world—may be
gone before we get there.
2. We should remember that even Nature’s inadvertence has
its own charm, its own attractiveness. The way loaves of
bread split open on top in the oven; the ridges are just byproducts
of the baking, and yet pleasing, somehow: they
rouse our appetite without our knowing why.
Or how ripe figs begin to burst.
And olives on the point of falling: the shadow of decay
gives them a peculiar beauty.
Stalks of wheat bending under their own weight. The
furrowed brow of the lion. Flecks of foam on the boar’s
And other things. If you look at them in isolation there’s
nothing beautiful about them, and yet by supplementing nature
they enrich it and draw us in. And anyone with a feeling for
nature—a deeper sensitivity—will find it all gives pleasure.
Even what seems inadvertent. He’ll find the jaws of live
animals as beautiful as painted ones or sculptures. He’ll look
calmly at the distinct beauty of old age in men, women, and at
the loveliness of children. And other things like that will call
out to him constantly—things unnoticed by others. Things
seen only by those at home with Nature and its works.
3. Hippocrates cured many illnesses—and then fell ill and
died. The Chaldaeans predicted the deaths of many others; in
due course their own hour arrived. Alexander, Pompey,
Caesar—who utterly destroyed so many cities, cut down so
many thousand foot and horse in battle—they too departed
this life. Heraclitus often told us the world would end in fire.
But it was moisture that carried him off; he died smeared
with cowshit. Democritus was killed by ordinary vermin,
Socrates by the human kind.
You boarded, you set sail, you’ve made the passage. Time
to disembark. If it’s for another life, well, there’s nowhere
without gods on that side either. If to nothingness, then you no
longer have to put up with pain and pleasure, or go on
dancing attendance on this battered crate, your body—so
much inferior to that which serves it.
One is mind and spirit, the other earth and garbage.
4. Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about
other people—unless it affects the common good. It will
keep you from doing anything useful. You’ll be too
preoccupied with what so-and-so is doing, and why, and
what they’re saying, and what they’re thinking, and what
they’re up to, and all the other things that throw you off and
keep you from focusing on your own mind.
You need to avoid certain things in your train of thought:
everything random, everything irrelevant. And certainly
everything self-important or malicious. You need to get used
to winnowing your thoughts, so that if someone says, “What
are you thinking about?” you can respond at once (and
truthfully) that you are thinking this or thinking that. And it
would be obvious at once from your answer that your
thoughts were straightforward and considerate ones—the
thoughts of an unselfish person, one unconcerned with
pleasure and with sensual indulgence generally, with
squabbling, with slander and envy, or anything else you’d be
ashamed to be caught thinking.
Someone like that—someone who refuses to put off
joining the elect—is a kind of priest, a servant of the gods, in
touch with what is within him and what keeps a person
undefiled by pleasures, invulnerable to any pain, untouched
by arrogance, unaffected by meanness, an athlete in the
greatest of all contests—the struggle not to be overwhelmed
by anything that happens. With what leaves us dyed indelibly
by justice, welcoming wholeheartedly whatever comes—
whatever we’re assigned—not worrying too often, or with
any selfish motive, about what other people say. Or do, or
He does only what is his to do, and considers constantly
what the world has in store for him—doing his best, and
trusting that all is for the best. For we carry our fate with us
—and it carries us.
He keeps in mind that all rational things are related, and
that to care for all human beings is part of being human.
Which doesn’t mean we have to share their opinions. We
should listen only to those whose lives conform to nature.
And the others? He bears in mind what sort of people they
are—both at home and abroad, by night as well as day—and
who they spend their time with. And he cares nothing for
their praise—men who can’t even meet their own standards.
5. How to act:
Never under compulsion, out of selfishness, without
forethought, with misgivings.
Don’t gussy up your thoughts.
No surplus words or unnecessary actions.
Let the spirit in you represent a man, an adult, a citizen,
a Roman, a ruler. Taking up his post like a soldier
and patiently awaiting his recall from life. Needing
no oath or witness.
Cheerfulness. Without requiring other people’s help. Or
serenity supplied by others.
To stand up straight—not straightened.
6. If, at some point in your life, you should come across
anything better than justice, honesty, self-control, courage—
than a mind satisfied that it has succeeded in enabling you to
act rationally, and satisfied to accept what’s beyond its
control—if you find anything better than that, embrace it
without reservations—it must be an extraordinary thing
indeed—and enjoy it to the full.
But if nothing presents itself that’s superior to the spirit
that lives within—the one that has subordinated individual
desires to itself, that discriminates among impressions, that
has broken free of physical temptations (as Socrates used to
say), and subordinated itself to the gods, and looks out for
human beings’ welfare—if you find that there’s nothing more
important or valuable than that . . .
. . . then don’t make room for anything but it—for anything
that might lead you astray, tempt you off the road, and leave
you unable to devote yourself completely to achieving the
goodness that is uniquely yours. It would be wrong for
anything to stand between you and attaining goodness—as a
rational being and a citizen. Anything at all: the applause of
the crowd, high office, wealth, or self-indulgence. All of
them might seem to be compatible with it—for a while. But
suddenly they control us and sweep us away.
So make your choice straightforwardly, once and for all,
and stick to it. Choose what’s best.
—Best is what benefits me.
As a rational being? Then follow through. Or just as an
animal? Then say so and stand your ground without making a
show of it. (Just make sure you’ve done your homework
7. 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. If you can privilege
your own mind, your guiding spirit and your reverence for its
powers, that should keep you clear of dramatics, of wailing
and gnashing of teeth. You won’t need solitude—or a cast of
thousands, either. Above all, you’ll be free of fear and
desire. And how long your body will contain the soul that
inhabits it will cause you not a moment’s worry. If it’s time
for you to go, leave willingly—as you would to accomplish
anything that can be done with grace and honor. And
concentrate on this, your whole life long: for your mind to be
in the right state—the state a rational, civic mind should be
8. The mind of one set straight and purified: no pus, no dirt,
And not a life cut short by death, like an actor who stops
before the play is done, the plot wound up.
Neither servility nor arrogance. Neither cringing nor
disdain. Neither excuses nor evasions.
9. Your ability to control your thoughts—treat it with respect.
It’s all that protects your mind from false perceptions—false
to your nature, and that of all rational beings. It’s what makes
thoughtfulness possible, and affection for other people, and
submission to the divine.
10. Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and
remember it: Each of us lives only now, this brief instant.
The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see. The
span we live is small—small as the corner of the earth in
which we live it. Small as even the greatest renown, passed
from mouth to mouth by short-lived stick figures, ignorant
alike of themselves and those long dead.
11. To the stand-bys above, add this one: always to define
whatever it is we perceive—to trace its outline—so we can
see what it really is: its substance. Stripped bare. As a
whole. Unmodified. And to call it by its name—the thing
itself and its components, to which it will eventually return.
Nothing is so conducive to spiritual growth as this capacity
for logical and accurate analysis of everything that happens
to us. To look at it in such a way that we understand what
need it fulfills, and in what kind of world. And its value to
that world as a whole and to man in particular—as a citizen
of that higher city, of which all other cities are mere
What is it—this thing that now forces itself on my notice?
What is it made up of? How long was it designed to last?
And what qualities do I need to bring to bear on it—
tranquillity, courage, honesty, trustworthiness,
straightforwardness, independence or what?
So in each case you need to say: “This is due to God.” Or:
“This is due to the interweavings and intertwinings of fate, to
coincidence or chance.” Or: “This is due to a human being.
Someone of the same race, the same birth, the same society,
but who doesn’t know what nature requires of him. But I do.
And so I’ll treat them as the law that binds us—the law of
nature—requires. With kindness and with justice.
And in inconsequential things? I’ll do my best to treat them
as they deserve.”
12. If you do the job in a principled way, with diligence,
energy and patience, if you keep yourself free of distractions,
and keep the spirit inside you undamaged, as if you might
have to give it back at any moment—
If you can embrace this without fear or expectation—can
find fulfillment in what you’re doing now, as Nature
intended, and in superhuman truthfulness (every word, every
utterance)—then your life will be happy.
No one can prevent that.
13. Doctors keep their scalpels and other instruments handy,
for emergencies. Keep your philosophy ready too—ready to
understand heaven and earth. In everything you do, even the
smallest thing, remember the chain that links them. Nothing
earthly succeeds by ignoring heaven, nothing heavenly by
ignoring the earth.
14. Stop drifting. You’re not going to re-read your Brief
Comments, your Deeds of the Ancient Greeks and Romans,
the commonplace books you saved for your old age. Sprint
for the finish. Write off your hopes, and if your well-being
matters to you, be your own savior while you can.
15. They don’t realize how much is included in stealing,
sowing, buying, resting, seeing to business (not with the
eyes, but another kind of sight).
16. Body. Soul. Mind.
Sensations: the body.
Desires: the soul.
Reasoning: the mind.
To experience sensations: even grazing beasts do that. To
let your desires control you: even wild animals do that—and
rutting humans, and tyrants (from Phalaris to Nero . . .).
To make your mind your guide to what seems best: even
people who deny the gods do that. Even people who betray
their country. Even people who do <. . .> behind closed
If all the rest is common coin, then what is unique to the
To welcome with affection what is sent by fate. Not to
stain or disturb the spirit within him with a mess of false
beliefs. Instead, to preserve it faithfully, by calmly obeying
God—saying nothing untrue, doing nothing unjust. And if the
others don’t acknowledge it—this life lived with simplicity,
humility, cheerfulness—he doesn’t resent them for it, and
isn’t deterred from following the road where it leads: to the
end of life. An end to be approached in purity, in serenity, in
acceptance, in peaceful unity with what must be.