Do not discuss in general terms the question of what is a good man. Be one. Book X, passage 16, pg. 103Hence, Marcus Aurelius put together The Meditations as a private collection. Though his contemplative nature lead him toward Stoicism, he was the adopted heir of Aurelius Antoninus and successor to the Roman Empire. In true Stoic fashion, Marcus Aurelius viewed his position as Emperor as an undesired duty. His writings reflect a melancholic man who struggled with balancing his life between the trappings of governance and the true purpose of his life- the cultivation of virtue.
An admirer of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius’ writings quote liberally from the former slave-philosopher and carry many of the same sentiments. As with Epictetus, the foundation for Aurelius’ stoicism is in religious belief.
To those who inquire: “Where did you see the gods, from what do you deduce that they exist, that you worship them thus?” First, our eyes can in fact see them. Then, I have certainly not seen my soul either, but I prize it. So too with the gods whose power I experience on all occasions; is it from this that I deduce that they exist, and I revere them. Book XII, passage 28, pg. 128.The individual is not to questions one’s place in the Universe. There is a belief that all is here according to a plan. A plan that may not be recognized, but exists nonetheless. Our purpose is to get past the artificial judgments of what’s good and what’s bad. Our purpose is to discover and fulfill the role in which we find ourselves.
A bitter cucumber? Throw it away. Brambles on the path? Walk around them. That is sufficient. Do not go on to say: “Why do such things exist in the world? or you will be laughed at by a student of nature just as you would be laughed at by a carpenter or a cobbler if you criticized them because you see shavings and scrapings in their workshop from the things they are making. Yet they have a place to throw these things, whereas the nature of the Whole has nothing outside itself. The wonder of its art is that, keeping within its own limits, it changes back into itself all inside those limits that seems to decay, grow old and useless, that it makes these very things the source of new creations, so that it needs no substance outside itself and has no place use for a place to throw decaying matter, but is satisfied with its own place, its own matter, and its own craftsmanship. Book XIII, passage 50, pg. 83.Aurelius sees all time as cyclical and endlessly repeating. Whether one lives a lifetime or ten lifetimes, the observant will see patterns in history. Our ephemeral time here is to reach out to our fellow man, but not be subsumed by them. In the end, death consumes us all.
Do not be entirely swept along by the thought of another’s grief. Help him as far as you can and as the case deserves, even if he is overwhelmed by the loss of indifferent things. Do not, however, imagine that he is suffering a real injury, for to develop that habit is a vice. Rather be like the old man who went off to beg for his foster child’s top, fully aware that it was only a top; so must you do likewise. Well, then, when you are seen weeping on the rostrum, my good man, have you forgotten what these things are worth? “yes, but these men do long for them.” Is that any reason for you also to be foolish?” Book V, passage 36, pg. 48.Marcus Aurelius has a compelling voice. An Emperor who truly wished to live his life virtuously and realized his own position was the greatest obstacle to doing so. However, given his willingness to accept all obstacles, he refused to deny his responsibility. Though The Meditations is hard-pressed to be called a great literary or philosophic work, it’s an insight into a great man.
Though Marcus Aurelius subscribed to Stoicism, his writings reflect less hostility to Epicureanism than Epictetus‘ writings. At times, he acknowledges that either we disperse into atoms upon death (an Epicurean idea) or we accept whatever change death may bring us that God has decreed. Either way, death is nothing to be feared. Sort of like Pascal’s wager. Though he thinks without a Hell, one of the more enduring images of this work is that the cyclical nature of time results in a periodic return to a universal conflagration- with interesting implications for the soul.
If souls live on, how has the air of heaven made room for them through eternity? How has the earth made room for such a long time for the bodies of those who are buried in it? Just as on earth, after these bodies have persisted for a while, their change and decomposition makes room for other bodies, so with souls which have migrated into the upper air. After they have remained there for a certain time, they change and are dissolved and turned to fire as they are absorbed into the creative Reason, and in this way make room for those additional souls who come to share their dwelling place. Thus might one answer on the assumption that souls live on. Book IV, passage 21, pg. 29.