The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Antoninus/Commentary on Book 11
This Book is made up out of two distinct parts. The first twenty-one chapters consist, in Marcus' familiar manner, of longer reflections interspersed with brief practical reflections or admonitions. The last seventeen chapters are mere extracts from a commonplace book, resembling in this some chapters of Book vii, but with the difference that they have little intrinsic merit and no bearing upon the rest of the Book, and that none of them bean the authentic stamp of the author's thought or expression. The main purpose of chs. 1–18 appears to be a statement of the various ways in which a reasonable character, that is the reason of the Universe manifesting itself in a conscious being, maintains its self-government in various circumstances and various relations. This part ends with a long chapter which is a kind of Duty to my neighbour.
Chapter 19 states four aspects of the self which militate against its rational unity, i.e. its life according to Nature, and ch. 20 contrasts this failure of the self, this desertion of its appointed post, with the co-ordination and subordination exhibited in the physical universe. It is a briefer statement of what was said in ix. 9. The end of ch. 20, with its emphasis upon holiness and justice, points back to the close of ch. 1 and forward to the opening of Book xii. There follows ch. 21 on the ideal of self-consistency, that is, action which is consistent with the common end prescribed by the law of Reason.
There is one remarkable digression, ch. 6, on the history and purpose of drama.
Ch. 1. The opening of Book x is an address to the Soul to enter upon its divinely appointed inheritance, the identification of human will with the unity and purpose of the World soul. Book x. 2 shows how man's nature rises from mere life to animal life, and builds on this a life which is reasonable and social, what is elsewhere called life in the company of gods and men.
Here Marcus gives his ideal of soul entirely rationalized, the claim of man's spirit to be a free personality. In xi. 8 he starts from the nature of the Whole and rises to a similar view. The marks of this reasonable spirit are that it sees itself, is self-conscious, moulds itself (the Greek word for the articulation of the embryo), makes and wins its freedom by a gradual effort, guided by will. Thus it rises out of the animal stage of sensation and impulse into a life of conscious habituation to right.
This growth completed, it enjoys the fruit of the Word, is master of itself at any and every moment of its conscious life of virtue. Good life, the Stoics held, is the exercise of reasonable free-will; it does not need, as Aristotle taught, a completed lease of life for its own fulfilment.
This autonomy is further seen in the freedom of the spirit as intelligence, its power, in Plato's phrase, 'to contemplate all time and all existence'. The language here shows a remarkable advance from the depreciation of intellectual adventure in the earlier Books. Had Marcus been reading Plato's Republic and Theaetetus once more, and reconsidering Pindar's words about the 'flight of the soul'? Perhaps he had meanwhile studied Galen's Introduction to the Sciences, where the student is said 'not to shun geometry and astronomy but to "contemplate things below and above the firmament", as Pindar writes'. More probably he had in mind Lucretius' splendid passage about 'passing beyond the flaming ramparts of the world'. There is a remarkable parallel to what Marcus writes here in Hegel. 'This feeling that we are all our own is characteristic of freedom of thought, of that voyage into the open, where nothing is below or above us but we stand in solitude, alone by ourselves.'
The sudden drop from these lofty intellectual claims to the remark that a man in middle life can have learned all there is to know is surprising. Plato, indeed, both in the passage of the Republic and that of the Theaetetus cited above, contrasts the pettiness of human life with the philosopher's glance into eternity, but Marcus' point is that life here is always the same; a poor thing indeed, but a sufficient field for moral struggle and success. Certainly he turns to the gifts of the soul, love of fellows, truth, self-reverence, the honour due to Reason, somewhat as the apostle passes from 'the liberty with which Christ has made us free' to the actual fruits of the Spirit.
This recognition of virtuous activity, which is the concrete aspect of the large and general claim to liberty, leads up to one of the sudden surprises of Marcus' reflection. The respect for self, which is respect for right Reason or the true Word, resembles, he says, the respect of Law for its own enactments. Thus the principle which governs the individual is identical with the Law which sustains society, and this is identical with Universal reason. The Daciers remark: 'il y a dans ce passage une profondeur de sens étonnante et c'est cette profondeur qui en fait l'obscurité.' Its meaning becomes clearer in the light of the closing words of xi. 20.
Ch. 2. The arts, like dancing and acting, are incomplete in their separate phases (ch. 1. 1), whereas moral activity is entire at any moment. He adds that the attraction and illusion of the arts may be destroyed by analysis of the whole into its elements (iii. 11; vi. 13). The object of Marcus is to correct that susceptibility to artistic emotion which impedes a life dedicated to action:
Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
With a 'happy inconsistency' Marcus adds that although the same analysis will demonstrate the pettiness of all parts of life, it is not to be applied to virtuous activities. Should he not have said that analysis cannot touch virtue since that rests upon the unity of self-consciousness which was emphasized in ch. 1?
Marcus' attitude here is in striking contrast to what he has said in iii. 2 and iv. 20 of the intrinsic character of the beautiful.
Ch. 3. The little worth of life leads to the consideration of what a soul prepared for death must be like. He is thinking of voluntary death as well as of death in the course of Nature, and so contrasts the right philosophic attitude with the enthusiasm for martyrdom exhibited by some of the Stoics, as well as by the Christians, whom he takes as examples of those who chose death on grounds of private judgement.
This, the only explicit mention of the Christians in the Meditations, has provoked much discussion. Some are for cancelling the words as a marginal note which has intruded into the text. Others have tried to remove from the history of Marcus' reign the few but significant traditions of Christian suffering for the Faith. Some have supposed that the Emperor made this note with direct reference to the martyrdoms at Lyon and Vienne (circa a.d. 177).
The most noteworthy point is the implication that the attitude of some Christians at least was so familiar as to be almost proverbial. This is more striking than the easily understood failure of the Emperor to sympathize with the infant Church. The remark is parenthetical; Marcus is not condemning the Christians, he is only illustrating a point by an example which has a poignant interest to us.
The words 'sheer opposition' have sometimes been translated 'mere perversity', applying the younger Pliny's famous phrase used in describing to Trajan the opposition of his Christian subjects in Bithynia. Marcus means unreasoned resistance, and that implies stubbornness, whether in a good cause or a bad.
The most eloquent and impartial comment upon this text is the noble passage in Mill, On Liberty; the sentiment of a reader is exquisitely phrased by Matthew Arnold: 'What an affinity for Christianity had this persecutor of the Christians! The effusion of Christianity, its relieving tears, its happy self-sacrifice, were the very element, one feels, for which his soul longed; they were near him, they brushed him, he touched them, he passed them by.'
Chs. 4–5. The first of these brief chapters serves to illustrate the saying in ch. 1, that the soul garners its own fruit. Action for the sake of others is its own reward; there is a joy to the Self in fulfilling its own law.
Chapter 5 reiterates the truth that the soul makes itself what it will. This it does by the guidance of general principles of two kinds, the one referring to the natural law of the Universe, the other to the true character of man's constitution.
The word art is used, in the manner of Plato and Aristotle, to embrace activity guided by virtuous ends, the arts being in general the adaptation of given material to ideal purposes. The word may have been specially chosen here, as it was in v. 1, because Marcus has been reflecting upon the likeness and contrast between moral activity and the arts of relaxation and amusement.
Ch. 6. At first sight ch. 6 seems out of place, but its introduction here may perhaps be explained on the ground that the writer wishes to illustrate the parallel between the artist's presentation of life and actual life. Drama is the most striking instance of an art which handles reality in a manner which is a pretence. What justification is there for man's pleasure in such make-believe?
Marcus makes these points. First, Tragedy reminds us of what actually does happen:
We are not all alone unhappy:
This wide and universal theatre
Presents more woful pageants than the scene
Wherein we play in.
Secondly, the catastrophe is a necessary outcome of the complication which precedes it: we see 'the inscrutable destiny interwoven with the legend'. The play is, for Marcus, a picture of the necessity which he believed to govern universal Nature.
Thirdly, we are captivated by the sorrows of the story and we see that the kings and heroes of legend were obliged to endure those sufferings. The poet addresses a message to his public: 'you are not to complain if your experience on life's stage tallies with what I show you here'.
The word 'captivated', used here, is also employed in iii. 2, where our pleasure in the appearances of the decay of nature, and in artistic representations of death and what in actual experience is disgusting, is debated. The pleasure depends, Marcus says, upon recognition of natural law. His theory here is the same, though he does not state it explicitly. St. Augustine asked but did not answer a similar question about his pleasure in the adventures of lovers, as shown on the comic stage.
The fourth point is drawn from what Aristotle calls the intellectual element in dramatic poetry, where the poet embodies his criticism of life in striking maxims.
The Old Comedy Marcus prefers to what succeeded to it. He approves its direct and unvarnished style, so strongly contrasted with the later innuendo, and its manly criticism of great statesmen, even of philosophers. Aristophanes administered an antidote to vain-glory. In passing he remarks that Cynics, like Diogenes, copied this candour; they called a spade a spade, mercilessly exposed men who stood high in their own esteem, even an Alexander of whom he no doubt is thinking.
Comedy declined through its middle period to the new fashion, which was reproduced in the Roman comedy of Plautus, Terence, and their successors, whom Marcus ignores. It was content to hold a mirror to everyday and often ignoble manners: 'Oh! Menander and Man's life, which of you imitated the other?' We can easily illustrate Marcus' meaning by comparing Ben Jonson with Congreve and his fellows. His moral is: 'Comedy is essentially a lecture of virtue but . . . is become a school of debauchery.' Benjamin Jowett has a vigorous passage, which may illustrate what Marcus says, in his introduction to Plato's Gorgias.
What Marcus says of the maxims of the New Comedy is pointed by the fact that until the recent recoveries in Egypt all that was preserved of these poets were brief sayings treasured for their pithy sentiment, like 'evil communications corrupt good manners', or what Marcus quotes from Menander at v. 12.
Ch. 7. From the dramatic picture of life he returns to actual life, tacitly correcting what he said earlier about the conflict between his own calling and the claims of philosophy. The question was debated by philosophers, especially the Stoics and Epicureans, whether the wise man should take part in the service of the state. Clearly he must, and his life will be the best exercise of his principles. Marcus himself, as Emperor, is called to protect his people, as the bull protects the herd. For him it is to fill the role in life's comedy which God, the master of the show, assigns.
This is a point in which these later Books mark a change of view, perhaps a heightened knowledge. Earlier Marcus had regarded philosophy as a place of momentary retirement, his mother by comparison with his stepmother, the life of the palace; now he says that our vocation is to do the work that lies to our hand, 'cultiver notre jardin'.
Marcus is fond of playing upon words, and may here be alluding to another sense of the words he uses: he may intend to suggest to the reader, if he contemplates a reader, 'the plot or outline' of your life, that which is yours to work out, as the poet's task is to develop his theme.
Ch, 8. Social and political unity were illustrated from the parable of the body and its members, so here we meet the image of the tree and its branches, with the further illustration of 'grafting '. The last simile is very familiar from St. Paul's use of it in Romans. Neither writer draws attention to the importance in horticulture of grafting a cultivated branch or bud upon a wild stock. Marcus is even mistaken as to the result of grafting a cultivated branch upon its parent tree; he says that the gardeners are wrong to suppose that the graft will ever recover its full union with the original stock.
Ch. 9. The last words convey the main point of this chapter. Both the coward and the unsocial citizen are deserters from duty, they break the ranks of the body politic. The earlier part refers to another question debated in the schools. The Stoics were at issue both with the followers of Aristotle, the Peripatetics, and with the Epicureans as to the place of anger in human life. Their opponents emphasized the advantage to society and the individual of anger, especially in the form of moral indignation, Marcus holds, with his school, that anger, like every other passion, is a weakness, not a strength. Wrath then is to be resisted as much as sorrow or pleasure, if a man is to fulfil his duty.
In his moral writings Galen, whose mother, he tells us, was liable to violent fits of temper, lays frequent stress upon the unreasoning anger in which Romans of high rank indulged. He tells, for example, how the Emperor Hadrian once blinded a servant in one eye. He inquired how he might make amends, and the victim replied by asking for the return of his eye.
Ch. 10. The argument is condensed and the ending difficult. First Marcus says that every 'nature', i.e. living organism, is superior to human art, because the arts and crafts are, in their processes, imitations of natural products. He means that spinning is suggested by the spider's web; weaving, perhaps, by the nests of birds. The crafts achieve man's purposes by the right use of their materials, and especially by a subordination of the lower to the higher, of means to ends, and of ancillary to architectonic arts.
Similarly every natural creation, tree and animal, has the power of employing its materials for its growth and maintenance. This power the physiologists of the school of Hippocrates, whose lead Galen followed, called Nature's 'justice', and Nature so at work they called 'artistic' nature.
Marcus concludes, from this common character of all 'natures', that the 'common' nature, being more perfect than its parts and including the Universe, could not be inferior to her parts in technical invention, in adaptation of means to her general ends, still less to the human crafts which imitate nature.
From this universal nature human justice is derived, and, he adds in Plato's manner, upon justice the rest of the virtues depend. This last point he proves by saying that if, for example, man is concerned for indifferent ends, for pleasure and praise, for health and wealth, he will destroy justice, which, as was said above, is right reason.
Chs. 11–12. From considerations about justice and social unity, the main subject of the Book, Marcus turns back to the self-realization from which he started in ch. 1. If the soul refuses to concern itself about what is indifferent to its moral health, about what lies outside its own choice, it can remain poised like the sphere of the Universe, illuminated by its own light. This light it turns upon objects, to secure truth, and upon itself, to enlighten its judgements and the impulses which depend for their efficacy upon reason.
Ch. 13. Kindness and gentleness, admonition of an offender without parade or self-sufficiency, are in private life the remedies against scorn and hate. This charity is made to rest upon a belief that God sees into men's hearts, and that no evil can befall him who is rightly disposed within and without, reconciled to his dispensation and aiming solely at his neighbour's good.
The reference to the Athenian statesman, Phocion, whom his fellow countrymen put to death, is puzzling in its apparent scepticism. Phocion is depicted by Plutarch as a model of strong wisdom and calm courage. Marcus seems to refer to the familiar story that as he drank the hemlock Phocion told his sons to bear no grudge against Athens.
Ch. 14. Marcus appears to be continuing the reflections of the opening of ch. 13, coloured by the facts of Phocion's career. He never shuts his eyes to the ignoble character of the many who dislike and oppose good men and goodness.
Ch. 15. Chapter 14 leads to this charming plea for sincerity, which resembles what is said elsewhere of the imprint of evil upon the outward expression and the inward man. He begins with 'the villain with a smiling cheek' and ends with the 'wolf in sheep's clothing'.
For the lines drawn on the forehead, compare Corneille's
and for the whole image: 'Doctor Cudworth says "a good conscience is the looking-glass of heaven, and there's a serenity in a friend's face which always reflects it".'
Ch. 16. A restatement of the positions that we can refuse to be affected by objects or claims which are morally indifferent, and that this is secured by viewing them distinctly, and by not allowing them to impress themselves upon the imagination. Life, too, with its apparent troubles is but for a moment. If circumstance is indeed disposed by Nature, we should welcome it; if it is hurtful, we have the virtue suited to confront it.
He adds, ironically, that the advocates of self-interest must surely permit me to pursue what I hold to be to my own advantage in the law of right conduct.
Ch. 17. This corollary to ch. 16 gives instances of the right way to form a judgement of experience, as a whole and in its parts.
Ch. 18. 'The nine rules which he draws up for himself, as subjects for reflection when anyone had offended him . . . are written with that effusion of sadness and benevolence to which it is difficult to find a parallel. To give them their highest praise, they would have delighted the great Christian apostle who wrote: "Count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother." Nay, are they not even in full accordance with the mind and spirit of Him who said: "If thy brother trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone; if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother"?'
i. The argument is obscure. The meaning is apparently that our bond to others rests ultimately upon an order of Providence, which arranges the whole and its parts. Although, then, all men are equals because all share in Reason, yet some have primacy over the rest, like the ram over his flock, to which Homer has compared Agamemnon, King of men.
ii. The unenlightened must be governed and their censure ignored, because both their opinions and acts argue ignorance of the right end of society.
iii. Do not resent admonishment which you see to be just. If it be mistaken, remember that the error arises from involuntary ignorance. The fact that evil men resent the name appropriate to the wrong they commit proves that they do in fact recognize goodness. It is the homage vice pays to virtue.
iv. We often err in intention, although we may from wrong motives, fear of public opinion, or cowardice avoid overt evil acts.
v. Men's motives are hidden, therefore we cannot infer evil principles from evil appearances.
(The words translated 'to serve a given purpose' mean literally 'according to economy'. The Greek word 'economy' has a remarkable history. It meant originally subordination of lower to higher, of parts to whole, in a household. Then it was used of an artist's employment of his means to his work. Later it was used for dispensation to evil that good may result, and so it passed into the sense of dissimulation, what we call economy of truth. The word was sometimes used to cover the presence of evil in the world, which was said to be 'according to economy', and it is possible that Marcus has this in mind here.)
vi. A maxim equivalent to the vulgar saying: 'it will be all the same a hundred years hence.'
vii. The favourite principle that apprehension is determined by imagination, and this should be schooled by deliberate judgement. The origin of anger is not ultimately the conduct of another but the effect his conduct excites in our imagination. The remedy for anger, then, is to reflect that moral good and evil consist in states of our understanding and their effect in the consequent acts of will. Anger is out of place, for another's action cannot involve us in evil; and, if we forget this, our own act becomes evil by injuring ourselves.
viii. A profound and wholesome observation. Anger and sorrow bring in their train more suffering than the causes of those passions in a presumed injury. One of the commonest causes of suffering is what is called an 'imaginary' grievance, and it is one we recognize to be foolish in our neighbour.
ix. Kindness, if genuine, is invincible. This passage is one which has been justly admired in Marcus. His life was, by all accounts, a running commentary on his precept.
Two remarks are rather negligently interposed in § 5, to avoid breaking the symmetry of the 'sacred Nine'. One, if not both, is a separate remedy for anger. To flatter men is as unsocial as to be angry with them; gentleness is stronger than wrath, because to be gentle is to be free from passion (vii. 52; xi. 9).
§ 6. The tenth gift is from Apollo himself, the leader of the Nine Muses. To expect fools not to offend is madness; to permit them to harm others, and yet to resent their conduct to ourselves, is to play the despot.
Ch. 19. At the close of ch. 18 it might well be considered that Book xii begins. Otherwise we may think that Marcus returns to the soul, the inward man, with which he began Book xi.
Four tempers of the mind are to be avoided: superfluity in imagination, unsocial thoughts, insincere speech, slavery of the divine element to the government of the flesh.
Ch. 20. This chapter touches upon a moral paradox, which especially embarrassed the Stoics. If Nature made man with impulses to achieve his own good, why does his governing self, in despite of natural law, resist the right? They refused to divide the soul into two powers, reason and desire, as though two rival powers struggled for the mastery of the soul; they said truly that it is the self which errs, the self which identifies itself with its desires.
St. Augustine has examined this point, in relation to his own life, in one of the most subtle and difficult passages of his Confessions, at the climax of his spiritual struggle. Marcus does not, like Augustine, reveal his own past difficulties; he is content to say that vice, and especially injustice and wrong, are solvents of the social bond. He adds that the unjust man not only sins against his fellow man, but deserts the service of God. The highest virtue is Holiness and the Fear of God.
Ch. 21. To be true to his principles, to be a consistent man, was a Stoic ideal. Marcus chooses this as one of the merits of his predecessor, Antoninus Pius. Our own great Jacobean commentator and divine, Gataker, speaks with enthusiasm of Queen Elizabeth as living worthily of her motto ''.
The point here is that consistency as such is no good ideal, it must be consistency in goodness. This means faithfulness to a common end, the law, that is, of the Eternal City, and this is nothing else than the service of God. In like high temper, Socrates says in effect, at the close of his first defence, and repeats it to Crito when in prison: 'my life has been consistent in public and private; I have been guided by two ideals, to do nothing contrary to holiness, nothing contrary to justice'.
Chs. 22–39. These fragments are certainly foreign to their present place in the Meditations. Whoever first edited the Meditations from the Emperor's note-books may have been so scrupulous as to preserve them in the place where he found them, or they may be leaves from some other source, which later got into their present place.
Ch. 22. The country mouse in Horace's Satire comes from the hill country, so that the highland mouse here may be a Roman form of the fable. Babrius does not use the adjective 'mountain' nor any other Greek fabulist, but in Babrius it is the sleek town-dweller who is frightened, as here.
Ch. 23. These bogies
Be but as buggs to fearen babes withal
Compared with the creatures in the sea's entral.
Ch. 24. The story may illustrate the hardiness of the Spartans, not merely their courtesy.
Ch. 25. The story is elsewhere told of Socrates and Archelaus, the son of Perdiccas. The same tale is told of Euripides, who did in fact spend his declining years in the court of the Macedonian King Archelaus.
Ch. 26. This is known from Seneca to have been a precept of Epicurus. Marcus himself prescribes the rule in vi. 48.
Ch. 27. Marcus has a similar reflection at vii. 47. In the fragments of the Pythagorean school, which were revived in the first century b.c., this maxim is associated with 'following God', which seems originally to have meant moving in harmony with the celestial bodies (x. 11).
Ch. 28. What Socrates answered is nowhere preserved. Xanthippe is by tradition the wise man's scold. There is little contemporary evidence of this, and Burnet has suggested that she was in fact a lady of high birth. He argues from her name (which belonged to the family of Pericles) and Lamprocles, their eldest son's name. There is something amusing to the vulgar in such stories at the expense of great men, and soon they are believed. Similarly it is probably gossip and spite that have injured the fair name of both Faustina and her mother.
Ch. 29. A form of a famous proverb referred to by Democritus, Aristophanes, and Aristotle.
Ch. 30. The quotation was used probably to illustrate the truth that servility indicates the absence of reason. Originally the word translated reason may have meant the right of speech, reserved for freemen, or even the ability in a slave to do more than obey an order.
Chs. 31–2. The point of these quotations is even more obscure than that of the rest. The second has a possible connexion with the sensitiveness to criticism which seems often to disturb the author.
Chapter 30 and both these quotations belong to the traditional literature of consolation.
Chs. 33–9. These fragments are either condensed summaries of extant chapters of Epictetus or are, it is thought, fragments from lost chapters of Arrian's Memoirs of that writer.
- Pl. Rep. vi, 486a, cited above at vii. 35.
- i. 7; i. 17. 9; ii. 13.
- He refers to the Theaetetus in x. 23.
- Galen, Protrepticus, ch. 1.
- Lucr. 1. 72.
- Hegel, Encyclopaedia, Logic, ch. 3, § 31.
- St. Paul, Gal. 5. i and 22–3.
- Réflexions Morales de l'Empereur Marc Antonin, ed. 1690, p. 670, where they cite 1 Cor. 2. 15.
- Keats, Lamia, ii. 229.
- Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. v. i.
- Plin. Ep. x. 96 and 97. Pliny speaks of 'pertinacia et inflexibilis obstinatio', of 'amentia', and uses the expression 'paenitentiae locus'.
- Mill, On Liberty, p. 48, ed. 3; cited Introduction, p. 267.
- Arnold, Mixed Essays, 1879 (included in Essays, Literary and Critical, Dent).
- Shak., As You Like It, ii. 7 (the Duke speaks).
- Jebb, Introduction to Oedipus Rex.
- St. Augustine, Conf. iii. 2.
- Rapin, Réflexions, ii. 23, cited in Spingam's Critical Essays of the XVIIth Century, p. 333, cf. 'The business of Comedy being to render Vice ridiculous', Sir R. Blackmore, Preface to Prince Arthur, ibid., p. 228
- Jowett, Dialogues of Plato, ii, p. 313, ed. 3.
- viii. 1.
- xi. 18. 1; cf. iii. 5.
- xii. 36.
- iv. 3.
- vi. 11 and 12.
- viii. 34.
- Cf. the close of viii. 34.
- Rom. 11. 23.
- Cf, the quotation from Socrates' Apology in vii. 45.
- See the Epicurean Philodemus, On Anger.
- xi. 18. 5.
- De Dignotione, Galen, v. 17.
- The soul like a sphere, viii. 41; xii. 3. 2.
- vi. 30. 1; vii. 24.
- Corneille, Le Cid, i. 1.
- Thackeray, Esmond.
- Farrar, Seekers after God, p. 282; 2 Thess. 4. 15; St. Matt. 18. 15.
- St. Augustine, Confessions, viii. 8–ix. 1.
- This is taken up again at xii. 1, cf. x. 1.
- Pl. Apol. 35c; Crito 51c.
- Spenser, Faerie Queen, 2. 12.