This is the second part of yesterday’s guest post “An In-Depth Review: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius – Part 1” written by Adam Isom, which can be read here.
How To Live and The Work in Life
But then the question is, how should you go about living? Firstly, always do your duty and live according to reason and nature, according to Marcus the Stoic. Don’t conjecture what others are thinking of you, but only care that what you do is just, sincere, consistent, and not to serve fame, pleasure, or pain. Rather than saying to someone that you are determined to be fair to them, be fair and good and it will show. Rather than thinking or talking about the kind of man that a good man ought to be, be a good man (or woman), without affectation, and others will see your virtue. In other words, do your duty and reveal yourself through action rather than words.
As for what you work at, Marcus recommends that you occupy yourself with few things while still doing what is necessary. He also exhorts you to never be too busy for someone, and to examine things calmly as if you had all the time in the world. In this latter aspect, he perhaps unwittingly repeats yet another one of the 48 Laws of Power, formulated by Robert Greene two thousand years later.
Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic, and that is why he insists that nothing, even sickness, should deflect you from your duty. Your inner work should be on shaping your character daily with contentment, simplicity, and modesty to achieve a ‘tranquillity that another man cannot upset’, unlike anything physical (which implies the possibility of degrading).
Finally, if you are genuinely wrong, then you should gladly change. For if you really seek the truth, you won’t allow your ego to get in the way—something scientists and philosophers in particular appreciate.
Ego and Fame
The ego is a funny thing: to some extent, a thing is only painful because you judge it be painful, and think about how it’s going to be painful. If you make a mistake and then think “geez, what was I thinking? Now I’m going to suffer the consequences”, you will feel more pain. He emphasizes again and again that it is our opinions of things that cause us pain rather than the thing itself. More to the point, it is in our power to change our opinions (another theme commonly represented in the field of personal development).
This is not “the ego” in the sense of overt defense mechanisms, but a subtler point of what you pay attention to and let pass through you–reminiscent of Eastern spirituality and meditation. He says that we should not add anything to our sensations but merely let them pass over us. In order not to suffer, you shouldn’t think of things that you don’t have as much as what you do. Nor get attached to what you have, nor overvalue it. And you should not be offended by a person’s faults, since you yourself have faults just like everyone else, so don’t be conceited.
Among conceits, seeking fame is perhaps the greatest of all, despite that posthumous fame is worthless, Marcus argues. Firstly, even posthumous fame is short and fades away, so that even those who were great in their day quickly become unknown. Secondly, even you are ‘known’ for some short time, it is just a name, and perhaps a few acts–a shadow of the life that you actually lived. Thirdly, future men and women will be just as they are now, not knowing who they are, nor having the leisure to care about those who have already passed away. Fourthly, or perhaps three-and-a-half-ly, these people will themselves die also after their short while.
He comments that it is strange that people set value on being known to posterity, to people they have never seen and will never see. If you seek fame, he says, let it be among your contemporaries.
A Quick Note: Where I Disagree
I suppose I should point out that I don’t agree with everything. He claims that no love of novelty is a virtue, that he is poor who needs another, that crimes of passion or desire are worse than those of anger, and I disagree with all of these things. He thinks it of paramount importance to consider how you would answer at the end of your life to the statement that you never wronged a person in deed or word, but I don’t. And most annoying of all, he believes, evidenced in at least a dozen places, that what happens is meant that way, and that no one is put in a situation they are unprepared by nature to deal with.
Despite these shortcomings, Marcus Aurelius has so much to say that I feel like I cheated him. I wish a blog post was more congenial to moving beyond general ideas, but truth be told, perhaps this is sufficient for all practical purposes.
As examples of what I didn’t include: I noticed running throughout the book was his implicit question as to what makes life worth living, and his answers. Or sentiments similar to Christian ones even though he was an enemy of Christianity, including his general emphasis on how the flesh and this material world are bad. If you want to learn more about what he has to say, I guess you’ll just have to read the book for yourself!
I’ll just close with a few miscellaneous nuggets of insight that don’t fit in any particular category especially well:
- Let your principles be brief and fundamental.
- Use plain discourse.
- Don’t act and speak as if you were asleep, or merely as you have been taught.
- Passing on what the Pythagoreans said: look each morning at the stars, and notice how they are constant, and unpretentious. In his time, he could write that “All things are the same, familiar in experience [..] Everything now is just as it was in the time of those whom we have buried.” But that’s not true anymore with our technologies advancing rapidly! Isn’t that amazing?
- Finally, has everything to do with those who aspire to deserve the title “writer”:
“Neither in writing nor in reading wilt thou be able to lay down rules for others before thou shalt have first learned to obey rules thyself. Much more is this so in life.”
~ Marcus Aurelius
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