Marcus Aurelius - Meditations - Book 4

Book 4

1. Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events
by accommodating itself to what it faces—to what is
possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own
aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel. As
a fire overwhelms what would have quenched a lamp.
What’s thrown on top of the conflagration is absorbed,
consumed by it—and makes it burn still higher.

2. No random actions, none not based on underlying
principles.

3. People try to get away from it all—to the country, to the
beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too.
Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like.

​ By going within.

​ Nowhere you can go is more peaceful—more free of
interruptions—than your own soul. Especially if you have
other things to rely on. An instant’s recollection and there it
is: complete tranquillity. And by tranquillity I mean a kind of
harmony.

​ So keep getting away from it all—like that. Renew
yourself. But keep it brief and basic. A quick visit should be
enough to ward off all < . . . > and send you back ready to
face what awaits you.

​ What’s there to complain about? People’s misbehavior?
But take into consideration:

​ • that rational beings exist for one another;
​ • that doing what’s right sometimes requires patience;
​ • that no one does the wrong thing deliberately;
​ • and the number of people who have feuded and envied
​ and hated and fought and died and been buried.

. . . and keep your mouth shut.

​ Or are you complaining about the things the world assigns
you? But consider the two options: Providence or atoms.
And all the arguments for seeing the world as a city.

​ Or is it your body? Keep in mind that when the mind
detaches itself and realizes its own nature, it no longer has
anything to do with ordinary life—the rough and the smooth,
either one. And remember all you’ve been taught—and
accepted—about pain and pleasure.

​ Or is it your reputation that’s bothering you? But look at
how soon we’re all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that
swallows it all. The emptiness of all those applauding hands.
The people who praise us—how capricious they are, how
arbitrary. And the tiny region in which it all takes place. The
whole earth a point in space—and most of it uninhabited.
How many people there will be to admire you, and who they
are.

​ So keep this refuge in mind: the back roads of your self.
Above all, no strain and no stress. Be straightforward. Look
at things like a man, like a human being, like a citizen, like a
mortal. And among the things you turn to, these two:

​ i. That things have no hold on the soul. They stand there
​ unmoving, outside it. Disturbance comes only from
​ within—from our own perceptions.

​ ii. That everything you see will soon alter and cease to
​ exist. Think of how many changes you’ve already seen.
​ “The world is nothing but change. Our life is only
​ perception.”

4. If thought is something we share, then so is reason—what
makes us reasoning beings.

​ If so, then the reason that tells us what to do and what not
to do is also shared.

​ And if so, we share a common law.

​ And thus, are fellow citizens.

​ And fellow citizens of something.

​ And in that case, our state must be the world. What other
entity could all of humanity belong to? And from it—from
this state that we share—come thought and reason and law.

Where else could they come from? The earth that
composes me derives from earth, the water from some other
element, the air from its own source, the heat and fire from
theirs—since nothing comes from nothing, or returns to it.

​ So thought must derive from somewhere else as well.

5. Death: something like birth, a natural mystery, elements
that split and recombine.

​ Not an embarrassing thing. Not an offense to reason, or our
nature.

6. That sort of person is bound to do that. You might as well
resent a fig tree for secreting juice. (Anyway, before very
long you’ll both be dead—dead and soon forgotten.)

7. Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed.

​ Don’t feel harmed—and you haven’t been.

8. It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character.
Otherwise it cannot harm you—inside or out.

9. It was for the best. So Nature had no choice but to do it.

10. That every event is the right one. Look closely and you’ll
see.

​ Not just the right one overall, but right. As if someone had
weighed it out with scales.

​ Keep looking closely like that, and embody it in your
actions: goodness—what defines a good person.

​ Keep to it in everything you do.

11. Not what your enemy sees and hopes that you will, but
what’s really there.

12. Two kinds of readiness are constantly needed: (i) to do
only what the logos of authority and law directs, with the
good of human beings in mind; (ii) to reconsider your
position, when someone can set you straight or convert you to
his. But your conversion should always rest on a conviction
that it’s right, or benefits others—nothing else. Not because
it’s more appealing or more popular.

13. You have a mind?

​ —Yes.

​ Well, why not use it? Isn’t that all you want—for it to do
its job?

14. You have functioned as a part of something; you will
vanish into what produced you.

​ Or be restored, rather.

​ To the logos from which all things spring.

​ By being changed.

15. Many lumps of incense on the same altar. One crumbles
now, one later, but it makes no difference.

16. Now they see you as a beast, a monkey. But in a week
they’ll think you’re a god—if you rediscover your beliefs
and honor the logos.

17. Not to live as if you had endless years ahead of you.
Death overshadows you. While you’re alive and able—be
good.

18. The tranquillity that comes when you stop caring what
they say. Or think, or do. Only what you do. (Is this fair? Is
this the right thing to do?)

​ < . . . > not to be distracted by their darkness. To run
straight for the finish line, unswerving.

19. People who are excited by posthumous fame forget that
the people who remember them will soon die too. And those
after them in turn. Until their memory, passed from one to
another like a candle flame, gutters and goes out.

​ But suppose that those who remembered you were
immortal and your memory undying. What good would it do
you? And I don’t just mean when you’re dead, but in your
own lifetime. What use is praise, except to make your
lifestyle a little more comfortable?

​ “ You’re out of step—neglecting the gifts of nature to hand
on someone’s words in the future. “

20. Beautiful things of any kind are beautiful in themselves
and sufficient to themselves. Praise is extraneous. The object
of praise remains what it was—no better and no worse. This
applies, I think, even to “beautiful” things in ordinary life—
physical objects, artworks.

​ Does anything genuinely beautiful need supplementing? No
more than justice does—or truth, or kindness, or humility.
Are any of those improved by being praised? Or damaged by
contempt? Is an emerald suddenly flawed if no one admires
it? Or gold, or ivory, or purple? Lyres? Knives? Flowers?
Bushes?

21. If our souls survive, how does the air find room for them
—all of them—since the beginning of time?

​ How does the earth find room for all the bodies buried in
it since the beginning of time? They linger for whatever
length of time, and then, through change and decomposition,
make room for others. So too with the souls that inhabit the
air. They linger a little, and then are changed—diffused and
kindled into fire, absorbed into the logos from which all
things spring, and so make room for new arrivals.

​ One possible answer.

​ But we shouldn’t think only of the mass of buried bodies.
There are the ones consumed, on a daily basis, by us and by
other animals. How many are swallowed up like that,
entombed in the bodies of those nourished by them, and yet
there is room for them all—converted into flesh and blood,
transformed to air and fire.

​ How is the truth of this determined?

​ Through analysis: material and cause.

22. Not to be driven this way and that, but always to behave
with justice and see things as they are.

23. To the world: Your harmony is mine. Whatever time you
choose is the right time. Not late, not early.

​ To nature: What the turn of your seasons brings me falls
like ripe fruit. All things are born from you, exist in you,
return to you.

​ The poet says “dear city of Cecrops . . .” Can’t you bring
yourself to say “of Zeus”?

24. “If you seek tranquillity, do less.” Or (more accurately)
do what’s essential—what the logos of a social being
requires, and in the requisite way. Which brings a double
satisfaction: to do less, better.

​ Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If
you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more
tranquillity. Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this
necessary?”

​ But we need to eliminate unnecessary assumptions as
well. To eliminate the unnecessary actions that follow.

25. And then you might see what the life of the good man is
like—someone content with what nature assigns him, and
satisfied with being just and kind himself.

26. You’ve seen that. Now look at this.

​ Don’t be disturbed. Uncomplicate yourself.

​ Someone has done wrong . . . to himself.

​ Something happens to you. Good. It was meant for you by
nature, woven into the pattern from the beginning.

​ Life is short. That’s all there is to say. Get what you can
from the present—thoughtfully, justly.

​ Unrestrained moderation.

27. An ordered world or a mishmash. But still an order. Can
there be order within you and not in everything else? In
things so different, so dispersed, so intertwined?

28. Character: dark, womanish, obstinate. Wolf, sheep, child,
fool, cheat, buffoon, salesman, tyrant.

29. Alien: (n.) one who doesn’t know what the world
contains. Or how it operates.

​ Fugitive: (n.) one who evades his obligations to others.

​ Blind: (adj.) one who keeps the eyes of his mind shut tight.

​ Poor: (adj.) requiring others; not having the necessities of
life in one’s own possession.

​ Rebel: (n.) one who is rebellious, one who withdraws
from the logos of Nature because he resents its workings. (It
produced you; now it produces this.)

​ Schismatic: (n.) one who separates his own soul from
others with the logos. They should be one.

30. A philosopher without clothes and one without books. “I
have nothing to eat,” says he, as he stands there half-naked,
“but I subsist on the logos.” And with nothing to read, I
subsist on it too.

31. Love the discipline you know, and let it support you.
Entrust everything willingly to the gods, and then make your
way through life—no one’s master and no one’s slave.

32. The age of Vespasian, for example. People doing the
exact same things: marrying, raising children, getting sick,
dying, waging war, throwing parties, doing business,
farming, flattering, boasting, distrusting, plotting, hoping
others will die, complaining about their own lives, falling in
love, putting away money, seeking high office and power.

​ And that life they led is nowhere to be found.

​ Or the age of Trajan. The exact same things. And that life
too—gone.

​ Survey the records of other eras. And see how many others
gave their all and soon died and decomposed into the
elements that formed them.

​ But most of all, run through the list of those you knew
yourself. Those who worked in vain, who failed to do what
they should have—what they should have remained fixed on
and found satisfaction in.

​ A key point to bear in mind: The value of attentiveness
varies in proportion to its object. You’re better off not giving
the small things more time than they deserve.

33. Words once in common use now sound archaic. And the
names of the famous dead as well: Camillus, Caeso, Volesus,
Dentatus . . . Scipio and Cato . . . Augustus . . . Hadrian and
Antoninus, and . . .

​ Everything fades so quickly, turns into legend, and soon
oblivion covers it.

​ And those are the ones who shone. The rest—“unknown,
unasked-for” a minute after death. What is “eternal” fame?
Emptiness.

​ Then what should we work for?

Only this: proper understanding; unselfish action; truthful
speech. A resolve to accept whatever happens as necessary
and familiar, flowing like water from that same source and
spring.

34. Hand yourself over to Clotho voluntarily, and let her spin
you into whatever she pleases.

35. Everything transitory—the knower and the known.

36. Constant awareness that everything is born from change.
The knowledge that there is nothing nature loves more than to
alter what exists and make new things like it. All that exists
is the seed of what will emerge from it. You think the only
seeds are the ones that make plants or children? Go deeper.

37. On the verge of dying and still weighed down, still
turbulent, still convinced external things can harm you, still
rude to other people, still not acknowledging the truth: that
wisdom is justice.

38. Look into their minds, at what the wise do and what they
don’t.

39. Nothing that goes on in anyone else’s mind can harm you.
Nor can the shifts and changes in the world around you.

​ —Then where is harm to be found?

​ In your capacity to see it. Stop doing that and everything
will be fine. Let the part of you that makes that judgment keep
quiet even if the body it’s attached to is stabbed or burnt, or
stinking with pus, or consumed by cancer. Or to put it another
way: It needs to realize that what happens to everyone—bad
and good alike—is neither good nor bad. That what happens
in every life—lived naturally or not—is neither natural nor
unnatural.

40. The world as a living being—one nature, one soul. Keep
that in mind. And how everything feeds into that single
experience, moves with a single motion. And how everything
helps produce everything else. Spun and woven together.

41. “A little wisp of soul carrying a corpse.”—Epictetus.

42. There is nothing bad in undergoing change—or good in
emerging from it.

43. Time is a river, a violent current of events, glimpsed
once and already carried past us, and another follows and is
gone.

44. Everything that happens is as simple and familiar as the
rose in spring, the fruit in summer: disease, death,
blasphemy, conspiracy . . . everything that makes stupid
people happy or angry.

45. What follows coheres with what went before. Not like a
random catalogue whose order is imposed upon it arbitrarily,
but logically connected. And just as what exists is ordered
and harmonious, what comes into being betrays an order too.
Not a mere sequence, but an astonishing concordance.

46. Remember Heraclitus: “When earth dies, it becomes
water; water, air; air, fire; and back to the beginning.”

​ “Those who have forgotten where the road leads.”

​ “They are at odds with what is all around them”—the alldirecting
logos. And “they find alien what they meet with
every day.”

​ “Our words and actions should not be like those of
sleepers” (for we act and speak in dreams as well) “or of
children copying their parents”—doing and saying only what
we have been told.

47. Suppose that a god announced that you were going to die
tomorrow “or the day after.” Unless you were a complete
coward you wouldn’t kick up a fuss about which day it was
—what difference could it make? Now recognize that the
difference between years from now and tomorrow is just as
small.

48. Don’t let yourself forget how many doctors have died,
after furrowing their brows over how many deathbeds. How
many astrologers, after pompous forecasts about others’
ends. How many philosophers, after endless disquisitions on
death and immortality. How many warriors, after inflicting
thousands of casualties themselves. How many tyrants, after
abusing the power of life and death atrociously, as if they
were themselves immortal.

​ How many whole cities have met their end: Helike,
Pompeii, Herculaneum, and countless others.

​ And all the ones you know yourself, one after another. One
who laid out another for burial, and was buried himself, and
then the man who buried him—all in the same short space of
time.

​ In short, know this: Human lives are brief and trivial.
Yesterday a blob of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash.

​ To pass through this brief life as nature demands. To give
it upwithout complaint.

​ Like an olive that ripens and falls.

​ Praising its mother, thanking the tree it grew on.

49. To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It
stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.

49a. —It’s unfortunate that this has happened.

​ No. It’s fortunate that this has happened and I’ve remained
unharmed by it—not shattered by the present or frightened of
the future. It could have happened to anyone. But not
everyone could have remained unharmed by it. Why treat the
one as a misfortune rather than the other as fortunate? Can
you really call something a misfortune that doesn’t violate
human nature? Or do you think something that’s not against
nature’s will can violate it? But you know what its will is.
Does what’s happened keep you from acting with justice,
generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility,
straightforwardness, and all the other qualities that allow a
person’s nature to fulfill itself?

​ So remember this principle when something threatens to
cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to
endure it and prevail is great good fortune.

50. A trite but effective tactic against the fear of death: think
of the list of people who had to be pried away from life.
What did they gain by dying old? In the end, they all sleep six
feet under—Caedicianus, Fabius, Julian, Lepidus, and all the
rest. They buried their contemporaries, and were buried in
turn.

​ Our lifetime is so brief. And to live it out in these
circumstances, among these people, in this body? Nothing to
get excited about. Consider the abyss of time past, the infinite
future. Three days of life or three generations: what’s the
difference?

51. Take the shortest route, the one that nature planned—to
speak and act in the healthiest way. Do that, and be free of
pain and stress, free of all calculation and pretension.


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