The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Antoninus/Commentary on Book 12


This Book appears to have been left unfinished, or rather consists partly of incomplete work; mixed with careful chapters are a number of mere jottings. See, for instance, ch. 8. Others are prefaced by ὄτι, which is usually the mark of an extract, and a condensed extract, from some other source (chs. 16, 21, 22, and 24). The opening chapter is closely connected in thought and expression with xi. 20, so that the original beginning of the Book, presuming that the original was in Books, may have been xi. 19, after the long summary of remedies for anger. The concluding chapter is clearly intended for its place, at the end of a Book, if not at the close of the whole Meditations.

Ch. 1. The opening chapter resembles ix. 1, in that Holiness and Justice are made to stand for man's chief ends. The thread of discourse is resumed from xi. 20–1, where holiness and the service of God were coupled with Justice, the right relation to our fellows, the good of the Commonwealth of rational creatures.

There is also a resemblance to viii. 1 and x. 1 in the reminder that to adopt the right rule and to press straight to the goal, while there is still time, is an urgent necessity.

To fulfil these two duties man must ignore all externals; be true to himself and to the divine element within him. This is called 'mind' in ch. 3, and the life set before a man is a life which his own genius or divinity is propitious to (xii. 36). This recurrence to the notion of the indwelling deity connects this Book more closely with Books ii and iii than with the intermediate Books, and helps to give it the religious character which marks what is perhaps at the beginning, certainly at the close, regarded as the concluding section of the whole work.

Ch. 2. The mention of the divine element in man leads to a statement of the mode of intercourse between God and man. At the end of ii. 12 Marcus had said that we must observe 'with what part of himself man touches God'; here he says that God sees the selves of men stripped of material coverings, and touches with his mind alone only what has flowed into them from himself.

The lesson that he draws here is not, as we should expect, that man's concern is to keep the divine part of himself pure and untouched by passion (ii. 17), but that he must ignore, as God ignores, all material circumstance, the flesh and its adjuncts. He waits until ch. 3 to draw this conclusion, after making a fresh start.

Ch. 3. The last chapter had distinguished the man himself from his material environment, here he separates from the other elements of the complex self the mind itself. This governs the vital spirit which informs the body, making it a living creature, and the body itself.

This is the same psychological analysis as was used in ii. 2, except that the mind there was called 'the ruling self'. In x. 2 he had, more scientifically, distinguished in man the merely natural, the animate, and the rational. There, as here, he says that we are to care for the two lower aspects of the self, but that they are subordinated to the third, as in Nature the inferior is always for the sake of the superior. He does not, however, suggest an ideal in which the lower is brought, as it is in the Universe, into the service of the higher, but dwells earnestly on the need to separate the mind element from its natural environment; to dwell, as it were, entirely in the life of the spirit.

The image of the sphere of Empedocles has already been used in viii. 41 and xi, 12. He insists (ii. 14) on the soul's immediate concern, the present act and word. He refuses to concern himself, as Epicurus recommends one to do, with the pleasures of memory, and he deliberately closes his eyes to hope.

Ch. 4. From the description of the true self and self-centred goodness he passes to the question of self-respect, just as he passed in ii. 5–6 from the smooth and godlike life to the self-reverence, which is reverence for the godhead within. Similarly in iii. 4–5 he had said that the soldier who stands to his post needs no man's witness to his integrity.

Why, he asks drily, are we not content with the approval of our own conscience; why do we, whom Nature has taught to love ourselves before others, prefer their opinion of us to our own? The reason is that we in fact entertain thoughts and designs which we could not bear to expose before a god or a wise mentor; we do not really respect ourselves, are not sincerely candid within. And so we respect the opinion of others (from whom we hide our real thoughts) more than we respect ourselves, or our opinion of ourselves. Galen, in his Exhortation to Virtue, is so convinced that progress in virtue is difficult by oneself unaided that he counsels even older men to find some friend who should be with them and admonish them of their faults, though he does not go so far as to suggest that the patient should confess his thoughts to the friend.

St. Bernard[1] would almost appear to have known the subtle observation of Marcus when he said: 'On every other point a man trusts his own opinion before his neighbours': about himself alone he trusts his neighbours before himself'; Pascal[2] too might have had this passage of Marcus in his mind when he wrote: 'Il estime si grande la raison de l'homme que, quelque avantage qu'il ait sur la terre, s'il n'est placé avantageusement aussi dans la raison de l'homme, il n'est pas content. C'est la plus belle place du monde.'

Ch. 5. The imperfection of his own inward and secret thoughts leads him to consider men whose lives have actually been lived in close communion with God. Probably his revered adoptive father, the Emperor Pius, is in his mind (i. 16; vi. 30). How is it that such men are entirely extinguished by death? Do they never return to this world of generation and decay?

For once he puts his thoughts into the form of hypothetical reasoning, which was so much affected by the Stoic doctors:

If it had been just for them not to be extinguished, the gods would have preserved them (since what is just is within the power of Nature):

But, on the supposition that the dead are extinguished, the gods have not preserved them: therefore it is just for them to be extinguished.


If the gods were unjust and unrighteous, we should not be debating with them: but (by raising our problem) we are debating with them:

Therefore the gods are just and righteous.

The foundation of the reasoning is the assumption that justice and goodness as much as power are Divine attributes. Marcus, having suggested the notion of conditional immortality, dismisses it, and is content to found himself on God's goodness and justice. He clearly feels the absurdity of debating with God's wisdom: 'Beware thou dispute not of high matters, nor of the secret judgements of God,—why this man is so abandoned and that man taken into so high favour, . . . answer with the prophet: "Thou are just, O Lord, and thy judgement is right."'[3] Thomas Gataker cannot speak too highly of the Emperor, 'who wishes to account nothing unjust or unfair to God'; Renan,[4] on the contrary, selects the chapter for gentle censure: 'Ah! c'est trop de résignation, cher maître. S'il en est véritablement ainsi, nous avons le droit de nous plaindre. Dire que, si ce monde n'a pas sa contre-partie, l'homme qui s'est sacrifié pour le bien ou le vrai doit le quitter content et absoudre les dieux, cela est trop naïf. Non, il a droit de les blasphémer. . . . Toute la vie se passa pour lui dans cette noble hésitation. S'il pécha, ce fut par trop de piété. Moins résigné il eût été plus juste; car, sûrement, demander qu'il y ait un spectateur intime et sympathique des luttes que nous livrons pour le bien et le vrai, ce n'est pas trop demander.'

The religious temper, the naïveté of Marcus, if that is the right word, appears in his combination of words that recall the old Roman religious language of covenant and contract with phrases that imply man's communion with God. He does the same in ch. 14, and again in what he implies in xii. 36 about propitiation. When therefore he speaks of men who have made contracts with God (that seems the literal sense), and have had communion by acts of piety and religious observances, we are reminded of the solemn dedication by Quintus Fabius Maximus, at the height of the Second Carthaginian War, of a Sacred Spring. Warde Fowler[5] says of this solemn ritual act: 'This is not an address to Jupiter, nor is there any sign in it that the god was considered as bound to perform his part as in a contract; the covenant is a one-sided one, the people undertaking an act of self-renunciation, if the god be gracious to them.'

Marcus' devotion to religious observance, which the Roman populace ridiculed, followed scrupulously the ritual forms and language of the religion of his fathers, but was interpreted in the light of his own spiritual belief.

Ch. 6. The writer returns from larger issues to brief practical maxims, continuing in this vein till the end of ch. 13.

He first illustrates from the two hands the effect of habituation in moral progress. (The further question of the effect of natural left-handedness on mental development has been much studied in recent years, and the results applied to education.)

Plato observes that a child is bom nearly ambidextrous, becoming right-handed by habituation. Aristotle twice says that man is the only ambidextrous animal, but normally he asserts the natural superiority of the right limbs to the left.

Ch. 7. Four memoranda, jotted down roughly, of points already often emphasized.

Ch. 8. The important relation of clear understanding and correct imagination to moral conduct (iv. 21. 2; vii. 29) and the value of analysis (xii. 10, 18, 29) are now very familiar. Here the points seem to be that if we analyse pains and pleasures, &c., we realize that their causes lie outside our will and so that they are indifferent in a moral view; that the wrong of another cannot injure our own will, which depends upon right judgement.

Ch. 9. An illustration, from the boxer and the armed combatant, to show that moral precepts are to become the habitual possession of the moral self, not taken up and put down at will.

Ch. 10. A mere note on the division of the objects of intelligence (xii. 20, 29).

Ch. 11. A vigorous assertion of moral liberty, a truth often pushed to paradox in his school. Notice also the realization of a personal relation to God (xii. 2, 31, 36).

Ch. 12. Find fault neither with gods nor men. Marcus' charity to all men, and resignation towards the heavenly powers increases with each Book. The former virtue is treated more fully in ch. 16.

Ch. 13. The man who is imbued with true principles is never taken by surprise, he is familiar with the universal laws, he is no stranger in the Eternal City.

Chs. 14–15. Even in this last Book, Marcus keeps his mind open in regard to the three solutions offered by thinkers to the problem of Universal law: the Stoic alternatives Fate and Providence, the Epicurean view of Chance concourse of atoms. Man's concern, whichever of the three solutions he may provisionally adopt, is with the right attitude to practice.

The expression 'a Providence which admits intercession' is remarkable. Marcus cannot mean the propitiation of a god who is angry with human offences, for the gods of Stoicism are as free from anger as those of Epicurus. Neither can he mean that prayer might change the settled progress of the Universe, an order which is independent of man's desires or will and cannot be turned aside by prayer. He must mean that God is ready to accept man's service, his offering, and his supplication.

What a good man's prayers should be he has spoken of in ix. 40: not for material blessings, not even to preserve the life of his child, but for right understanding and right impulses. The worshipper can, if there is a Providence, establish a right relation between himself, as he endeavours to preserve his own integrity, to perform his social and religious service, and the Divine will, which is the reason of all that befalls him. The Reason of the Whole will then be propitious to him, as he too will be in a propitious habit of heart and mind (xii. 36).

Should he, however, embrace the Epicurean view, a world of Natural law, then he can rely upon the entire freedom of the human spirit, a freedom in which both Stoic and Epicurean believed.

The image of the Lamp illustrates the light-bearing, life-giving function of the Spirit in the vessel of the body. This is the vital fluid, informing all parts of the animated organism; it is spent and renewed every day. As the Norwich physician[6] writes: 'though the radical humour contain in it sufficient oil for seventy, yet in some I perceive it gives no light past thirty.' Again the lamp sheds the light of Reason, enlightening the understanding and throwing its little ray upon the darkness:

Shine, lantern, shine and be silent
Never dies down the radiance of the stars.[7]

Ch. 16. Now he resumes from ch. 12 the subject of how to treat a wrongdoer. My fancied injury may be erroneous or, if wrong has been done to me, I cannot be sure that my fellow man has not defaced his own image by his act. Moreover, it is madness to expect other fruit from such a tree. My duty is to attempt a remedy.

This truly Christian forbearance has been sometimes censured. It is condemned by Renan,[8] who calls the reflection 'une des pensées où la bonté est exagéree jusqu'a la fausseté'. He discovers the disastrous results of a father's leniency in the character of his brutalized son and successor Commodus. Yet Commodus began his reign well; only, after a while, he was corrupted, like Nero, by absolute power and evil counsellors.

Chs. 17–20. Four brief chapters which appear to be closely connected, and which summarize what is handled more largely in iii. 11. Action or intent arise from a change in consciousness. Some experience awakens an imagination, what we call an impression. The remedy (ch. 18) is to discover what the thing which prompts the impression is in reality. Distinguish its material aspect from the form which gives it individuality; this is a necessity whether it is of speculative or practical moment. Consider it also in connexion with its purpose; see whether, for example, it is conceived with a selfish or a social end in view (ch. 20).

He adds that the duration of the object, its place in the time-series, must also be weighed (iii. 11. 2). He may intend merely to remind himself that all human experience is transient (xi. 18, subsection vi), or the pain-pleasure aspect of consciousness may be before him, and considerations such as Epicurus suggested in reference to pain-pleasure (vii. 64).

This analysis of a state of consciousness (ch. 19) will exhibit a conflict between the ideal self (reason) and the self of passions and wrong impulses, which tend to make the better self their plaything. He hints that if the governing self loses control, the psychical centre becomes the seat of passions, which usurp the seat of reason; in this way degeneration of the psychical unity ensues, a kind of moral insanity. Turn back the leaves to the sad summaries of degeneracy in iv. 28, v. 11, and ix. 39.

Here he may have in mind the besetting sins of the absolute ruler; his envy and duplicity (i. 11); the crimson infection of the imperial robe (vi. 30. 1); a Tiberius in the gloomy and suspicious retirement of Capri (xii. 27); the pitiable declension of a Nero (iii. 16); the ruling passion, the vanity, of lesser men (xii. 27).

The remedy for diseased egoism in all its forms is to correct the imagination as soon as it crosses the threshold (vii. 17), to substitute for selfish impulse action and purpose steadily bent upon common good (ch. 20, viii. 22).

Chs. 21–3. At first sight ch. 22, of which ch. 25 is a brief replica, appears to interrupt the sequence of ch. 21 and ch. 23, both of which dwell on the law of change. Perhaps, however, the implied connexion is that if change, and death, which is a form of change, trouble you, you are to correct your judgement by the considerations of ch. 23. Thus you may attain the calm which follows the storm, presage of the quiet rest which death itself will bring to close your allotted span.

The beautiful simile of doubling the cape and winning the desired haven has been supposed to come from an unknown poet. Marcus may, however, have fallen into the cadence of poetry; he is writing carefully, as may be seen in the alliteration of ch. 23, followed by its arresting climax. 'Thou must not be dejected nor despair, but stand with equanimity to God's will . . . because after winter follows summer, after night comes back the day, and after the tempest a great calm.'[9]

Ch. 23. A more careful and complete statement of the fundamental belief that individual death is a good thing because it closes a process which is subordinate to the Whole; by the passing away of its parts the Universe renews its youth.

St. Augustine[10] has stated the identical law: 'They rise and they set, and by rising they commence a kind of being; they grow up that they may become mature; when mature they wax old and pass away; and some there be that wax not, yet they all pass away. This is the law of their nature. Thus much Thou hast allotted to them, because they are parts of things which exist not all together but, by passing away and succeeding, all of them perfect that Universe, whereof they are parts.' . . . 'The Word itself calleth thee to return to that place of rest imperturbable, where love is not forsaken, if itself do not forsake.'

Marcus is content, without drawing St. Augustine's conclusion, to state the law of transience. He follows in the path where God leads him. Who accepts the law of the Eternal City not only follows God, but is inspired by God, and carried by God. The language is unconsciously echoed by à Kempis:[11] 'He rides pleasantly enough whom the grace of God carries. And what wonder if he feels no burden, who is carried by the Almighty, and led by the sovereign guide.'

Ch. 24. The first principle is a repetition of what was said in x. 11, to be satisfied with acting justly in what is done in the present and embracing gladly what is assigned to him in the present. The mention of Right relates to the passage of Plato, which he referred to in the last words of x. 11. He adds that to blame either a chance concourse of atoms or a wise providence is madness (viii. 17). The second principle is the recognition of the universal law (iv. 5; xii. 23) which governs the continuity and cessation of the life of the individual.

The third principle seems to be conceived as a corrective to pride; we are to rise above the earth's plane, in idea, and to look down on men's trivial engagements (vii. 48; ix. 30), comparing them with the cloud of unseen witnesses.

In this unique passage Marcus appears to adopt the common belief in the presence of unseen spirits in the atmosphere (he does not say that they walk the earth). This is a revival or a survival of primitive animism, of which it has been said:[12] 'To an early Greek, the earth, water and air were full of living eyes; of theoi, of daimones, of Keres. To Homer and Hesiod they are "myriads from whom there is no escape or hiding."'

It is difficult now to realize that this was also the general belief in England in the seventeenth century, and was shared by writers like Milton and Sir Thomas Browne.

Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth,

Sir Thomas Browne[14] uses the Stoic doctrine of a scale of Nature to justify belief in these spirits, a higher order than man: 'therefore for Spirits, I am so far from denying their existence, that I could easily believe that not only whole countries, but particular persons have their tutelary and guardian angels'; and later we meet with 'the unquiet walks of Devils, prompting and suggesting us unto mischief, blood, and villainy'.

This may be one of the places to which Renan[15] refers in the words: 'le surnaturel n'est dans les Pensées qu'une petite tache insignifiante, qui n'atteint pas la merveilleuse beauté du fond.'

Ch. 25. Judgement here must mean erroneous judgement, as in ch. 22 (iv. 7. 38).

Ch. 26. This chapter is a summary of much of Book ii: (a) the ordinance of Universal nature, ii. 3; (b) the evil not yours but the wrongdoer's, ii. 1; (c) generation and passing away, ii. 12; (d) mind, not blood or seed, is the bond of the human family, ii. 1; (e) the true Self comes from a spiritual source beyond the present, ii. 4 and 17; (f) nothing is your own, it is a loan from another world, ii. 4; (g) judgement is the determining power in morality, ii. 4; (h) the uniqueness and importance of the present moment, ii. 14.

Ch. 27. There is a colour and reality here, which is unfortunately rare in a writing which consists so much of generalized truths; there is also a touch of satire such as the Emperor rarely allows himself. Except the old age of Tiberius at Capri, which Tacitus has immortalized, nothing is known of the persons mentioned. Marcus' point is perhaps emphasized by the oblivion that now covers all but the names of these pursuers of baffled ambitions.

Marcus contrasts such lives with the simple service of God. Simplicity is the best of virtues in his eyes, just as affected simplicity is the worst of evils (xi. 15).

And the Devil did grin, for his darling sin
Is pride that apes humility.[16]

Ch. 28. The answer to the question of the sceptic about evidence for the existence of the gods is that there are visible gods, for instance the heavenly luminaries, and secondly that man may argue from effect to cause, from the phenomenal world to the unseen agency which sustains and directs it (x. 26).

This argument, in its general form, is reasoning from the evidence of design in the world, as Socrates did, to a wise creator. The special form used here is by analogy with the argument to man's soul, which is not visible, from his activities. This form of proof is very frequent in second-century literature, for example in the Christian apology of Minucius Felix, in Theophilus of Antioch, in Apuleius, and in the De Mundo. Galen's book On the Use of the Parts is a cumulative argument from the adaptation of the organism to its functional activities to the existence of a God who manifests himself even more perfectly in the order of the heavens. Of this book Sir Thomas Browne[17] says: 'therefore, sometimes and in some things, there appears to me as much Divinity in Galen his Books De usu partium as in Suarez Metaphysics.' The Epicurean writings aimed at overthrowing this reasoning and substituting a scientific account based on atomism (x. 7. 2).

Ch. 29. The argument from effect to cause is an example of finding the form which underlies the material of experience. The duty of intellectual honesty corresponds with the practical duties of just dealing and truth speaking (ix. 1).

He adds an injunction to joy, to which he too rarely allows expression. This is the point in which Spinoza's Ethics differ so markedly from the Meditations, a difference depending presumably on a divergence of temperament in the writers.

Ch. 30. The duty of unifying our life by a continuous series of good actions suggests to Marcus this little rhapsody on the unity and continuity of the Universe (iv. 27; vi. 10). The purport is to give a view of the world which is vitalistic, in opposition to physical mechanism, and which resembles broadly much recent speculation which is dissatisfied with the explanation of the Universe predominating in the nineteenth century. The reason is that the Stoics and the school of Medicine to which Galen belonged worked from the analogy of life and living processes, their opponents approached the problem from the mechanico-physical end.

He begins with light, which unites what it illuminates (viii. 57; ix. 8), but with no suggestion of that worship of the Sun-god which became so widespread in the next century, for example in the Emperor Julian. He then follows the favourite idea of the Scale of Nature, mounting from the inanimate to the animate and then. to reasonable beings (vi. 14). In all we see the tendency to unity, we come at length to the conscious union in human and divine fellowship, to what he calls the 'passion' or 'sentiment' of common ends.

Chs. 31–5. This group of aphorisms is united by the thought of preparation for death, leading up to the final chapter where Marcus contemplates his own discharge from life.

Ch. 31. The fear of death is the dread of a loss of our lower powers; to entertain this fear is to be diverted from our true end, the life of reason with God.

Ch, 32. Man's littleness contrasted with the grandeur of his true vocation.

Ch. 33. The true end is to cultivate the governing self, the reason imparted by God to man.

Chs. 34–5. We can learn to think Death a little thing from the example of the Hedonist, who puts away fear as an obstacle to happiness. The real triumph over the last enemy is won by realizing that our end comes in Nature's hour and must therefore be good (iv. 23; xii. 23); that moral life is a question of quality, not quantity; every good action is complete as the expression of a moralized will (x. 1; xi. 1). Death can close Life's drama but cannot make it incomplete. Solon's maxim, 'Count no man happy till he reach the end', reiterated by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics, is contradicted by the moral consciousness, which affirms that the life of the shortest-lived, if good in quality, is equal to the years of Nestor (iv. 50; xi. 1).

Ch. 36. This Envoy to the Meditations is quiet, in the Attic manner, and full of reserved emotion. The imperial citizen leaves the great City, but his service is accomplished. Nature determines life's measure and the close. The little dialogue between the actor and the master of the ceremonies, the Roman praetor who gave his annual show, lends vigour to the truth which is to be conveyed. 'Remember that you are a player in a drama: the master of the chorus determines how long you are to play.' The words suggest the tragi-comedy of the masque of life and the irony of the last exit.[18]

The image changes in the last few words to the scene of worship and ceremony. He has done his part in the solemn Roman ritual; he is satisfied, and the master of his days is satisfied.

His servants He with new acquist
Of true experience from this great event
With peace and consolation hath dismist,
And calm of mind, all passion spent.[19]


  1. St. Bernard, clxxxii, 965 Migne.
  2. Pascal, Pensées, 404 Br.
  3. à Kempis, Imit. Christi, iv (iii), 58. 1; Ps. 118 (119), 137.
  4. Marc-Aurèle, ch. xvi, p. 268.
  5. Warde Fowler, The Religious Experience of the Roman people, p. 205.
  6. Sir Thos. Browne, Religio Medici, i. 43.
  7. Babrius, Fable 114.
  8. Renan, Marc-Aurèle, ch. xxvi, p. 472.
  9. à Kempis, Imit. Christi, ii. 8. 5. Notice the Stoic terms: 'ad voluntatem Dei aequanimiter stare et cuncta supervenientia tibi . . . perpeti.'
  10. St. Augustine, Confessions, iv. 10 and 11.
  11. à Kempis, Imit. Christi, ii. 9. 1.
  12. Dr. Gilbert Murray, Four Stages of Greek Religion, ch. 1 (slightly altered in 2nd edition, p. 50).
  13. Milton, Paradise Lost, iv. 677.
  14. Browne, Religio Medici, i. 33.
  15. Renan, Marc-Aurèle, ch. xvi, p. 272; Renan himself refers to i. 17; ix. 27; l.c. p. 16.
  16. Coleridge, The Devil's Thoughts, vi.
  17. Browne, Religio Medici, i. 14.
  18. This passage is referred to by Bolingbroke: 'Whether the piece be of three or five acts, the part may be long', Spirit of Patriotism.
  19. Milton, Samson Agon. 1755.