Thursday, 29 November 2007

Gems of Wisdom from M. Aurelius’ “Meditations”

Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is one of my favorite readings. Every time I return to this book, especially when my heart is in turmoil over something, I find germs that pacify my soul and uplift my spirit. 
I sincerely believe that this philosophical work is invaluable – a source of spiritual energy – and it should be included in the curriculum of educational institutions. 

Recently I strongly felt the desire to devote an article to M. Aurelius’ Meditations in which to quote excerpts form the best – in my opinion – and most practical of his thoughts. To make his maxims more intelligible, I will classify them per subject and edit them so that they may speak directly to us. I have translated from the Greek edition of the book, published by I. Zaharopoulos – Library of Ancient Writers.

--There is one Universe made up of all things held together with a sacred bond, and one God pervading all things, and one material substance, and one Law, i.e. one Reason common in all intelligent beings. 

-- Constantly regard the Universe as one living Being, having one substance and one Soul; and keep in mind that everything which happens has reference to one Consciousness, that of the Universe; and all is done with one Energy, and all things are causes of everything that happens; observe also the interconnection of all things and the deeper interweaving of happenings. 

-- The intelligence of the Universe has a tendency toward social life. Therefore it created the lower beings for the sake of the higher ones, and it has fitted the higher for close cooperation with each other. 

-- The substance of the Universe is compliant and convertible; and the Intelligence that governs it has no cause in itself for doing evil, for it has no malice. 

-- Contemplate deeply on the close connection of all things in the Universe and their relation to each other. In a way, all things are interdependent and friendly to each other. 

-- In the Universe, the intelligent Power that made all things, and to which they conform being held together by Nature, is and remains within them.

-- The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than...
the dancer’s; in this respect, one should be ready and firmly placed to meet everything that happens suddenly and unexpectedly. 

-- Since it is possible that you may depart from life this very moment, regulate every act and thought accordingly. 

-- If you strive to live only what you actually have, i.e. the present, you will be able to live the rest of your life, until your death, in tranquility and unity and peace with the god within you. 

-- You are composed of three things: the body, the animal breath and the intellect. Of these, the first two are yours so far as it is your duty to take care of them, but only the third part is mainly yours. 
If you detach from yourself, i.e. from your intellect, everything said or done by others, and everything you yourself said or did, and all that might disturb you in the future, you will be able to live chastely, free from every attachment, doing what is just and true, in peace and unity with your god within.

-- Love humankind and love God. 

-- Love family life, love truth, and love justice. 

-- Love labour and persevere in it. 

-- Love the humble art (skill) that you have learned, and rely on it. 

-- If you love yourself, you also love your own nature and its will. 

-- Love truly the people fate has joined you with. 

-- You will love all people with all your heart and you will delight in beneficence, if you realize that you are not separate but a member of the order of logical beings, and that by doing good to others you are doing good to yourself. 

-- You will love those who do wrong if you think that they are kinsmen, doing wrong through ignorance and unintentionally, and that soon both of you will die; above all they did not harm you, because they did not make your higher soul worse than it was before. 

-- Love what happens to you and has fallen to your lot by destiny. For what is more suitable? 

-- It is a characteristic of the rational soul to love one’s neighbor, and to love truth and modesty.

--You will gain serenity in your soul if you don’t observe what your neighbor thinks, says or does. Be concerned only with what you do yourself that it may be just, good and in accordance with divine principles. Do not wander, do not inspect others around, but follow your own straight route without deviating from it. 

-- If you wish to be tranquil, occupy yourself with fewer things. Do only what is necessary, and only what is required from a being that, according to nature, is destined for social life. This brings tranquility, not only because you are doing that which is good, but also because you are doing only a few things. Since most of the things we say or do are not necessary, if one omits them the same will have more comfort and peace.

 -- Whatever you may see do not be disturbed. Allow yourself to behave in a simple way. Does someone sin? He does it on his own account. Has something happened to you? It happened well. 

-- Do not revolt against that which you are constantly in communion with, i.e. the Intelligence that governs the Universe, for you will lose your inner peace. 

-- It is easy to repel and wipe away every impression that is troublesome and unsuitable to your character, and immediately afterwards you will have peace in your soul. 

-- It is in your power to live free from all compulsion in the greatest tranquillity of mind, even if all the world cry out against you as much as they choose, and even if wild beasts tear in pieces the members of this kneaded matter which has grown around you. 

-- No matter where you are taken and thrown, you shall keep your divine part tranquil, i.e. contented, if it feels and acts in conformity with its nature.

-- Even if men cannot admire you for the sharpness of your wits, or you may be defectively furnished by nature, or have no talents, show those qualities which are entirely in your power: sincerity, dignity, perseverance, aversion to lust, contentment with your circumstances, frugality, benevolence, freedom of opinion, unpretentiousness, freedom from idle talking, and greatness of thought. There is no excuse of natural incapacity and unfitness to exhibit all these qualities. Why should you remain voluntarily below the mark? 

-- The character of your mind and the quality of your soul are shaped by your habitual thoughts. 

-- The mark of a perfect character is to live every day as if it were the last day of one’s life, and to be neither overexcited nor apathetic nor a hypocrite. 

-- The character of a man shows in his eyes. 

-- Never say that some unfortunate event that happened to you prevents you from being just, magnanimous, prudent, sensible, wise, lover of truth, generous, independent character, and having all the virtues by the coexistence of which human nature fulfills its purpose in life. 

-- Be careful not to treat the cruel people the same way the cruel treat other persons. 

-- Grief as well as anger are signs of a weak character, because they are both conditions of a soul that was hurt and carried away.

-- Practice piety and beneficence, and abstain not only from doing evil but also even from thinking evil; further, practice simplicity in your way of living, far different from the habits of the rich. 

-- Dig within. For within lies the fountain of good; and it can always bubble up if you will always dig. 

-- When you have done a good deed and another has received it, do not seek something more, either to gain the reputation of having done good or to obtain a return. 

-- Fix your eyes carefully on what you do and observe it, at the same time contemplating what man’s nature requires and that it is your duty to be a good man. Then do it without turning to the right or left, and as it seems to you more just; however do it with a good disposition, with modesty and without pretension. 

-- Become good today rather than tomorrow. 

-- Do everything with reference to the good of mankind. 

-- Talk no longer about the kind of man a good man ought to be, but be such. 

-- Do not waste the rest of your life in thoughts about others, unless you refer your thoughts to some object of common good.

-- Always bear this in mind: that very little indeed is necessary for living a happy life. 

-- If you perform everything that the present moment requires from you and follow right reason diligently, vigorously and fondly, considering nothing as unimportant, but keeping your inner divine part pure, as if required to give it back immediately, and if you hold on to all this expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but being satisfied with your present activity according to nature, and if every word and sound you utter is with heroic truth, then you will live happily. There is no man to prevent this. 

-- Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it. Don’t say, “Unhappy am I because this has happened to me.” Instead, say, “Happy am I, though this has happened to me, because I continue free from grief, neither crushed by the present nor fearing the future.” 

-- Remember also on every occasion that leads you to vexation to apply this principle: this is not a misfortune, but to bear it bravely is good fortune. 

-- Consider whether magnanimity, freedom of thought, simplicity, gratitude, and piety are much more pleasant than lust that causes the degradation of man.

-- Wickedness does not harm the soul of another; it is only harmful to him who has the power to be released from it whenever he so chooses. My neighbor’s free will is just as indifferent to my own free will as it is his breath and his flesh. For though we are made for the sake of each other, our sovereign reason is independent; otherwise my neighbor’s wickedness would harm my soul. 

-- It is a ridiculous thing for a man not to avoid his own wickedness, which is in his power, but to want to avoid the wickedness of others, which is impossible. 

-- Let neither another man’s wickedness, or opinion, or words, nor the lust of your flesh hinder you from freely expressing the truth and from doing everything with justice and in accordance to the law and the real value of things.

--Death is nothing else than an operation of nature; and if anyone is afraid of an operation of nature, he is a child. 

-- If then – whenever the time of your departure from life approaches – abandoning everything else, you honor only your ruling faculty (reason) and the divinity within you, and you do not fear that you will cease to live at some time, but on the contrary you fear to have never begun living according to nature, then you will be a man worthy of the Universe which produced you, and you will cease feeling a stranger in your own land; further, you will cease wondering at things that happen daily as if they were unexpected, being dependent on this or the other. 

-- Anticipate death with a cheerful mind, as being nothing else than the dissolution of the elements of which every living being is composed. Death is according to nature, and nothing is evil that is according to nature. 

-- We ought to consider not only that our life is daily wasting away and a smaller part of it is left, but it is also necessary to think that, if a man lives longer, it is quite uncertain whether his reasoning power will remain the same and if it will still be sufficient for the perception of things and the intelligent observation required for the empirical knowledge of everything that pertains to the divine and human matters. 

-- It is consistent with the character of a wise man to face death neither with aversion nor with impatience nor with contempt, but wait for it as one of the operations of nature. 

-- Pass then this little space of time in conformity with nature, and end your journey of life in content, just as an olive falls down when it is ripe, blessing nature that produced it and thanking the tree on which it grew. 

-- If any god told you that you would die tomorrow, or certainly on the day after, you would not care much whether it was on the third day or tomorrow, unless you were in the highest degree mean-spirited; for how small is the difference! So think that whether you die after many years or tomorrow is not such a great thing. 

-- Look at the immensity of time behind you and the time that is before you - another boundless space. In this infinity then, what is the difference between him who lives three days and him who lives three generations?

--To him who is imbued by true principles, even the briefest precept, or any common precept for that matter, is sufficient to remind him that he should be free from grief and fear. For example: “The race of men is like leaves which the wind scatters on the ground.” Leaves are also your children. 

-- Give your whole attention to everything you do, and always ask yourself if death would be a dreadful thing for the reason that you wouldn’t be able to finish it. 

-- To be wise is to act justly; be simple, free from perturbation, without suspicion of being hurt by external things, kindly disposed towards all. 

-- To seek the impossible is insanity; and it is impossible for evil men not to do some things of that kind. 

-- Nothing happens to any man that he is not equipped by nature to bear. 

-- He who is wise has a great spirit and remains firm and unharmed by any circumstances. 

-- Every soul, the philosopher says, is involuntarily deprived of truth; consequently it is deprived of justice and temperance and benevolence and everything of the kind. It is most necessary, then, to bear this constantly in mind, for thus you will be gentler towards all. 

-- We ought to check in the series of our thoughts everything that is without a purpose and useless, but most of all beware of being over-curious and malignant.

The above anthology from the Meditations of M. Aurelius, the unique philosopher-king (AD 121 – 180), is by no means exhaustive. One can download the entire book from the Internet, and feast on the emperor’s thoughts, which are but the essence of the wisdom of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers.

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