The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Antoninus/Commentary on Book 2

BOOK II

The inscriptions: 'Written among the Quadi on the river Gran' at the close of Book i, and Written at Camuntum' at the beginning of Book iii, are now generally thought to be titles to Book ii and Book iii. In that case the present Book will have been composed in the anxious months of the campaign in Moravia, the most striking incident of which was the famous battle connected in Christian legend with the Thundering Legion. Amid like conditions of doubtful warfare Frederick the Great wrote his poem Le Stoicien, under the inspiration of Marcus.

This and Book iii are remarkably alike in matter and manner; they resemble most nearly Book xii, and I have sometimes thought that ii, iii, and xii were the original draft out of which the whole Meditations later grew. In particular the doctrine of the indwelling Genius or Divinity, so prominent in Books ii and iii, recurs but rarely until we pass to Book xii.

The date of the miraculous victory over the Quadi is most likely to be a.d. 173, as general head-quarters removed in the winter a.d. 173–4 to Sirmium (Mitrovitz) on the Saar. Marcus then was writing in the field, on the Danube line and north of it, away from the libraries at Rome. To this situation the allusions to his books and memoranda may perhaps refer (ii. 2 and 3; iii. 14). One notable difference distinguishes the two Books. The solemn and lugubrious stress upon the transience and pettiness of man's life, which shadows the pages of Book ii, gives way in its successor to a more hopeful tone; the burden of disillusionment and disappointment seems lifted. May we suppose that this change reflects the relief, when the anxieties of the campaign in Moravia were past, and Marcus allowed himself to be saluted Imperator for the seventh time and to assume the title Germanicus?

The two Books then are alike, yet contrasted, each has a unity and spirit of its own. Certainly in Book ii there is a nearly continuous current of reflection, uniting the brief and formally distinct chapters; prominence is given to special points of thought and practice, noticeable words and phrases recur, and ch. 17 is a carefully composed conclusion. There is a pause between ch. 3 and ch. 4 as if the first three chapters were a proem, but the impression of unity is confirmed from what is a nearly complete summary of the topics of the Book in xii. 26. He begins by distinguishing the three aspects of Duty, to my neighbour, to myself, and to Nature and the God who sustains Nature. Throughout he assumes the familiar principle of the Stoic school: that there is no good in the strict sense for man save the good of human personality:

to live by law,
Acting the law we live by without fear;
And, because right is right, to follow right
Were wisdom in the scorn of consequence.[1]

To true good and evil, to right and wrong, are contrasted what the Stoic school called 'indifferent' ends: life and death, riches and poverty, good report and evil report, pleasures and pains. Self-respect and self-reverence are the virtues of the individual, as an individual, and they depend upon the judgement of the true man, his governing faculty, what we may term reasonable Will, something close to Conscience. This judgement is in our power to control, so that man's chief tasks are to be one with his fellow man and one with the providential system of which he is a part. Indeed his chief duty and privilege is to preserve his own soul, the indwelling Divinity, in holiness, because the reason in which he participates is derived from the Divine reason, a 'grain of glory mix'd with humbleness'.

Ch. 1. This morning meditation is not devotional, like the Pythagorean maxim: 'In the morning lift up your eyes to the heavens',[2] nor is it strictly an examen de conscience. It is rather a summary of moral precepts, stated rationally, even coldly, though as the writer proceeds we discover behind his words a strong religious, even at times an enthusiastic, strain of devotion. The form of the chapter is a dialogue with self or between two aspects of the self.[3] A problem is stated, an answer suggested. A second form, occasionally employed, is that of a dialogue between two persons.[4] Both forms were familiar to Marcus from Roman poetry and satire, beginning with Lucilius, but he uses them rarely. He can himself at times discover a vein of the satiric spirit, which is in so much of his country's literature. Normally he propounds maxims for his own guidance, and in so doing he not seldom seems to contemplate an unknown reader. The soul is 'discoursing with itself, concerning itself, in that active dialogue which is the "active principle" of the dialectic method as an instrument for the attainment of truth'.[5] The implication is that there is a division in the self, requiring to be settled. Thus these solitary meditations are linked to the dramatic dialogues of the Greek genius, which begin in that famous passage in the Iliad[6] where Ulysses is shown, deserted by his comrades, debating within himself whether to leave the battle:

Now on the field Ulysses stands alone,
The Greeks all fled, the Trojans pouring on:
But stands collected in himself, and whole,
And questions thus his own unconquer'd soul.

The purpose of the chapter is to show the reason why we are not to meet evil in another by evil in ourselves, by resentment and hate. Facing frankly the fact that we meet evil in our everyday life, Marcus does not here attempt to explain the existence, in a world ultimately ruled by good, of evil-doers, he merely considers what remedies there are in our own conduct for such evil. First he puts the paradox of Socrates that the man has attempted to do me evil from ignorance of what is real good and real evil. That is, he has chosen for himself mistaken ends. As is said in ch. 13, he is blinded to the distinction between light and darkness. He is to be pitied rather than to be hated.

Again, as is put at greater length in ch. 11, he has not injured me, because the gods do not permit a man to be morally injured, only to be hurt in those things which are not either good or evil, in property or fame, even in life and death. We are ourselves given the power of moral independence.

Thirdly, the wrong-doer is after all my kinsman; we participate, both of us, in the Divine reason; I cannot therefore be angry with or hate one who belongs to the same reasonable society with myself. We came into the world as members of one body, we are designed to work together, as the physical organism works in unison to preserve its natural existence. Anything then in me that tends to work against my fellow man is a resistance to Nature and natural law, and to return apparent evil by real evil in myself is to resist Nature. Thus the doctrines, so briefly stated in this opening chapter, are three. First that men are reasonable by nature, because they have in them a particle of Divine reason, and therefore contain a principle which is a deeper source of social unity than mere fellowship by blood and common race; secondly that this reason informs man that his only true good and evil is right and wrong, and that he is able to secure this for himself; thirdly that right and wrong rest upon knowledge, so that evil ultimately means ignorance, that is unenlightenment by reason. The particle of reason is called in ch. 4 an effluence from the mind which administers the Universe. In ch. 2 it is identified with the governing element in man, the central understanding. That it is here called a particle is in accordance with the Stoic teaching, which gives a material substratum to consciousness, inasmuch as the whole world revealed to our consciousness is matter informed by energy. We are reminded of St. Augustine's[7] struggle with materialistic presuppositions: 'How could it all profit me, so long as I thought that Thou, O Lord God, who art Truth, wast an infinite luminous body, and that I was a piece broken off that body', and of an expression of Sir Thomas Browne:[8] 'there is surely a piece of divinity in us'.

The use of the analogy from the bodily organism to the political union of man is familiar from its employment in St. John's gospel and in St. Paul's epistles. Marcus' great physician, Galen, whose teaching is probably reflected in the analysis of ch. 2, endeavoured to show in his work On the use of the parts of the body how the co-ordination, which Marcus illustrates from the limbs, the jaw, and the eyelids, runs through every physiological adaptation, and is, as he thinks, evidence of the ruling purpose of Nature in her works. The assumption that in man's life only moral good and moral evil are in fact good and evil is the boldest and most wholesome of the Stoic hypotheses: 'We understand', says Cicero,[9] 'right to be such that, waiving all utility, it can be justly commended of itself, without any rewards or profits'.

Ch. 2. Man partakes with his fellow men in Mind, a portion of the Divine allotted to each man (ch. 1), whereby man himself is able to touch God (ch. 12). What then is that of which I say 'I am', that which is par excellence myself? In answer Marcus gives the broad popular distinction between soul and body, but divides the body, the psycho-physical organism, into the physical structure and the animating breath, the pneuma. For what is often called soul he substitutes the Stoical term, 'the governing self', corresponding to our expression ' the reasonable will'. Later he sometimes employs the phrase 'governing self' for the ruling power in the Universe.

This governing self in man is often identified with Mind[10] or Understanding or the reasonable part, sometimes with the Divine in man. In this Book, however, Marcus distinguishes it from the indwelling Genius,[11] the god-in-man. This distinction is characteristic of the second and third Books and the twelfth, whereas the other Books rarely mention the Genius.

The almost ascetic tone in which he speaks of the body reflects a temper of mind which appears to be personal. It is not far removed from the view expressed by Socrates in the Phaedo of Plato, where the body is a prison-house of the soul. This aspect of Marcus' thought has been supposed to reflect a Platonizing tendency in later Stoicism. Clearly it conflicts with the view which represents the body, as much as the mind, as part of a world-process which is determined to good by a wise Providence. We may best understand it as the outcome of a religious dualism which is opposed to the scientific reflection of genuine Stoicism, a reflection which unifies the world of experience in the light of natural law. Marcus appears to be concerned in this Book to emphasize the importance to moral well-being of a reverence for self, which is also a reverence for the indwelling spirit. At the outset then he lays stress upon the importance of the reasonable judgement to moral well-being, and speaks of moral freedom as opposed to servitude to the flesh, and of man's end as being a restoration of the harmony of the individual with the universal mind.

This contempt for the body is extended elsewhere in his reflections to a depreciation of the world man lives in by comparison with the world of the heavenly luminaries, the visible gods (as Marcus believed). This attitude of mind runs through much of Greek speculation, even of their natural philosophy, but is seen most conspicuously in their language about the visible heavens. We find a more convincing 'piece of divinity' in the hyssop upon the wall than in the solar system; they find the godlike in what is above this region of mist and darkness. A good illustration of this fundamental diversity of view may be drawn from the conclusion of Marcus' younger contemporary Galen. He closes his work on the Use of the bodily parts, after showing the marvels of organic structure even in the minutest living beings, by contrasting these corruptible, muddy, things with the purer manifestations of mind in the heavens. In much the same spirit Aristotle had vindicated his study of The Parts of Animals, and even more conspicuously Plato had depreciated all the things of sense by comparison with the ideas of pure Reason.

The curious little digression upon the distractions of books is repeated in ch. 3. It is a characteristic note of Roman Stoicism, this reminder that conduct is our concern, not theory. Cicero insists upon it in his Offices and it is a commonplace of Seneca's Moral Letters: 'we make a burden of life as well by our indulgence in literature as in all else', he writes to Lucilius.[12] The moral is taken over by Montaigne: 'I have been pleased . . . to see men in devotion vow ignorance, as well as chastity, poverty and penitence: 'tis also a gelding of our unruly appetites to blunt this cupidity that spurs on to the study of books.'[13] The saying is echoed by Pope: 'or Learning's luxury or idleness',[14] and there is no more frequent moral in Goethe's writings.[15]

Ch. 3. 'You are not to repine at what is allotted to you, now or herafter.' This chapter takes up the close of the last, and rapidly reviews the variety of names which have been given to man's destiny, to all of which the Stoic philosophy tried to give a meaning agreeable to its system—The gods, Providence, Fortune, Nature, the web woven by the three Fates, Necessity, the advantage of the whole Universe, of which man is a part.

He begins with the works of the gods, which are 'full of Providence'. He means that from the parts of the world, where we can see the working of the gods, we can argue to a providential system, a care for us and for every part. To the Stoics the regular movements of the Heavens, of the Sun and other luminaries, visible gods as they held them to be, were plain evidence of a divine government of the Universe.

Next, the things of Fortune, the daily accidents of human life, are not in fact accidents but the effect of Nature, the result of the vast concatenation of the threads held in the hands of Providence, her purposeful dispensation. Here he is referring to a view that events which we do not understand and so ascribe to the goddess Fortune are the after-effects of an original creative impulse, which works according to a chain of causes and effects. If this be accepted, 'all flows from that other world'. Behind the constant changes of experience lies the supreme and all-pervading Reason, the divine Logos. The word 'flows' introduces the thought, adopted by Zeno from Heraclitus, that the world is the scene of unceasing changes, of eternal coming to be and passing away, behind which lies the unchanging law of Reason.

Next he takes Necessity, the Stoic word for what we call Natural Law and equates it to the benefit of the Whole, that which preserves the Universe. The Universe (the Greek word means 'ordered scheme') is preserved by the continual changes of the Elements and of the compounds into which they enter. In this way, as Marcus often says later, the whole is kept ever young.

This is your viaticum; you need only these doctrines to enable you to live and die with heartfelt gratitude to the gods.

The chapter is an example of the simplicity and yet extreme difficulty of the writer. He is simple because he states with conviction a conclusion which has sunk into the common consciousness of religious men and women; difficult because of his deep knowledge of a system every tenet of which had been discussed and criticized, and because of his parsimony of words, his reference to suppressed arguments.

Observe the exact care in verbal choice, the alliteration and assonance, the way in which he begins with 'the gods' and closes with the same word. The effect corresponds with the energy and concentration of thought, the simplicity and conviction of the writer.


Chs. 4–5. The first edition opens the second Book with ch. 4, and the Vatican MS. here begins a new folio. The connexion, however, of these two chapters with what went before is marked by the words 'from the gods', which take up the closing words of ch. 3 and by the repetition of 'the gods' at the end of ch. 5.

He has too long neglected the days of grace; before it is too late he must perceive the nature of the whole of which he is an effluence (ch. 1). Then follows the statement of his duty as a Roman and a man, which is to be done each day as if it were the last. The duty is expressed in five precepts, which are repeated positively in ch. 16: content with the station assigned by his destiny; regard for reason, which eschews passion, especially anger; resists pleasure and pain, hypocrisy, and self-love; forbids a life without purpose. These few precepts of practice correspond to the few doctrines of theory given in ch. 3. They afford leisure from alien imaginations, ensure unaffected dignity, natural love of the kind, freedom and justice (which in the Stoic system includes benevolence), and thus permit a man to live the smooth and godlike life.

Ch. 6. To do wrong to the self is contrasted with paying honour and reverence to the self and the Divinity within. The word Marcus uses for wrong or outrage is in Greek tragedy that which begets the self-willed autocrat. Hesiod opposes this vice to reverence in a passage which Marcus paraphrases in v. 33. Again he says: 'reverence and the honour of your own thinking self will reconcile you to yourself, your neighbour and the gods,'[16] the three aspects of duty emphasized above.

By Plato temperance and self-control are opposed to violence and wrong, but Marcus prefers a word which Democritus first used in the sense of self-reverence. He often couples it with faith or truth or simplicity, using it only once in its older sense of modesty. Dr. Gilbert Murray says: 'if you look into the history of later Greek Ethics, it is rather a surprise to find how small a place is occupied by Aidôs.'[17] Marcus perhaps chose the word partly as appropriate to translate the Roman verecundia, partly in need of a word for one of the triad 'self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control', partly as marking the contrast with the despot's outrage of his subjects and himself, the shamelessness of a Nero or Domitian. 'Do not become a Caesar, do not be dyed with the purple', he says,[18] and he repeatedly shows his keen sense of the dangers of absolutism, of the wilful violence of which Seneca makes Caligula the awful example. He may then have himself felt the peculiar need of that sense of shame which is, in Dr. Murray's words: 'essentially the thing that is left when all other moral sanctions fail',[19] that sense which made Francesco Barberini, in his own words, 'blush more deeply than his cardinal's crimson at the virtues of this heathen'.[20]

Ch. 7. The godlike life (ch. 5) and the leisure from alien imaginations may be disturbed by the allurement of some sense-image from without or by the sense of a wrong done to one by a neighbour. The way to correct this impression is to use the intrusive imagination, with the impulse which inevitably follows it, or the opposition of another's will, to prompt the right response in a virtuous activity.[21] This will correct the tendency to wander from the smooth life of virtue. There is a second danger, a different kind of instability. Beware of employing your leisure to drift from one distraction, as we say, to another.

Marcus refers to the 'busy idleness', the 'listless occupation' satirized by Horace. Lucretius[22] says, 'whose very life is little more than death'; Seneca that men are sick with a sickness which is death; they seek retreats yet cannot escape the fear of death.[23] Similarly Addison speaks of such dilettanti as 'not moribund but dead'. The other aspect, the aimlessness of such living, is vividly suggested by Ennius:[24] 'we go here, then there; arrived there, it is our pleasure to leave, our mind wanders without fixed purpose, praeterpropter vitam vivitur'. Seneca compares them to sailors without a star to give them a bearing.

Ch. 8. This chapter should follow ch. 6, just as ch. 9 runs well after ch. 7.

Montaigne[25] illustrates the sense: '"Do thy own work and know thyself", of which two parts, both the one and the other generally comprehend our whole duty, and do each of them in like manner involve the other; for who will do his own work aright will find that his first lesson is to know what he is and that which is proper to himself; and who rightly understands himself will never mistake another man's work for his own, but will love and improve himself above all other things, will refuse superfluous employments and reject all unprofitable thoughts and propositions. As folly, on the one side, though it should enjoy all it desire, would notwithstanding never be content; so, on the other, wisdom, acquiescing in the present, is never dissatisfied with itself.'

Ch. 9. We shall escape the wandering courses of ch. 7 if we remember that our nature is part of Universal Nature, and should be related to her, following her order and purposiveness. She has put it in our power (a truth which Epictetus loves to repeat) to do and say what is in accord with her, and none can hinder our will within the limits she prescribes.[26]

Ch. 10. This illustration from Theophrastus of the difference between faults due to anger and those due to appetite is out of place in this context. The only connexion with the subjects of the Book is that in ch. 16 Marcus puts anger down as one of the unsocial virtues and then mentions yielding to pleasure and pain. He says 'as we commonly do distinguish them' because the Stoic school strictly held that all vices are equally evil. The fragment has not been preserved elsewhere, but we can illustrate Theophrastus' meaning from Plato and Aristotle. Plato[27] remarks that we commonly reproach a man more who lacks self-control in the presence of pleasure than one who yields to pain. So Aristotle says that in common opinion want of control arising from anger is less culpable than that caused by appetite.[28] Anger, he goes on, hears the voice of reason in a sense, is accompanied by pain, is natural and undisguised. Appetite, on the contrary, follows at once the solicitation of sense, is pleasurable, unnatural in its excess, secret in pursuit of its end. Theophrastus emphasizes Aristotle's first two points. There is reason for anger, because the injury complained of was a precedent pain, and the pain accompanying anger proves that there is some compulsion upon the will. By contrast the victim of appetite acts of his own accord, at once and without reflection; he is carried away by the prospect of a pleasure which his imagination suggests. Moreover, appetite is less easy to correct and more effeminate, even as anger is more manly.

The question of the propriety of anger, in the form of just indignation, was at issue between the Peripatetic school (the followers of Aristotle and Theophrastus) and the Stoics. It is interesting, as exhibiting Marcus' range of study and impartiality, to find him commending Theophrastus here, as elsewhere he speaks with commendation of Epicurus.[29]

Ch. 11. This and the next chapter are principally directed to remove the fear of death, but Marcus uses them to bring out some of his favourite philosophic positions.

§ 1. To leave this mortal life is not a ground of fear, if there are gods, for they will bestow not evil but good. His meaning is, and here he agrees with the Epicureans, that what is beyond the grave is not an existence of darkness and suffering.[30]

But if the gods do not exist or if, as the Epicureans hold, they take no care for men, wherefore should I live in a world devoid of gods and Providence?

§ 2. But the gods do exist and make human life their care, and they have put it in man's power to avoid true evils, that is, moral failure. If anything else that befalls man were evil, they would have put it in man's power to avoid it. He leaves the conclusion unexpressed, viz. that as man cannot escape what are commonly called evils, they cannot actually be evils.

§ 3. We know that so-called goods and evils befall men indifferently; there is no exemption of the good man from suffering or of the bad man from blessings. These goods and evils cannot be true goods and evils or the gods would not have allowed them. We cannot believe that they would have allowed them in ignorance, or have consciously permitted them because they were not strong enough or wise enough to prevent or correct them.

§ 4. And certainly death and life, honour and dishonour, wealth and poverty, pain and pleasure fall to good and bad indifferently; but they are morally neither good nor evil, because what does not make a man morally worse cannot make his life worse. They are therefore neither good nor evil.

Marcus, in his train of thought, combines two arguments. One is from the goodness of the gods (or of Nature). Material blessings and sufferings would not be permitted by Heaven, if they were real goods and evils, to fall equally upon the just and the unjust. The second is that material goods and ills are not real goods and ills because they do not affect a man's moral integrity or (he might have added) compensate his moral failure.

The axioms that gods exist, and that they are all wise and all powerful, and that they are the cause only of good, are derived ultimately from Plato's teaching in The Republic and The Laws. In the later Books Marcus prefers generally to preserve an open mind between belief in the gods and the Epicurean atomism, and again between believing in a divine general providence and in divine care for the individual. Here there is no hesitation in his belief.

Incidentally he rejects a statement of Epictetus,[31] who taught that the gods did not put material things in men's power, 'not because they would not, but because they could not', and of Seneca that 'what is refused to us was not in their power to give'.[32] Lastly, it will be observed that neither here nor anywhere else does he discuss the later Stoic view that these material goods and evils may, where moral freedom is not affected, be treated by the good man as 'preferred' or 'rejected'. Presumably he believed, as is indeed the case, that to admit this kind of casuistry is to tamper with the purity of the moral doctrine he had accepted.

Ch. 12. The transition is from the 'indifferent' goods and ills of the last chapter to the power of thought in man, which can judge of the worthlessness of all temporal things by comparison with itself and the Divine, which it can touch if it is rightly disposed. The dread of death is removed by disillusionment in regard to life and by recognizing that the king of terrors, stripped of his trappings, is nothing else whan a work of Nature and a work which serves her purpose. The reference to the child's dread is an allusion to the fable of the boy who was frightened by the mask he had himself made. The two kinds of disillusionment are followed by the reassertion of the mind's power to dwell in contact with the godhead. These closing words are the motive of ch. 13 and are continued in ch. 15 and ch. 17.

The main topics of the chapter were familiar to the ancient reader from the literature of consolation, in its many forms. The 'horror naturalis' of decomposition and decay had been treated with all his poetic power by Lucretius,[33] and Seneca often dwells on the same theme.[34] In modern literature the subject is handled by Montaigne in an essay[35] largely based on Lucretius and Seneca, and Bacon[36] follows Montaigne in the words: 'and by him that spake only as a philosopher and natural man, it was well said, pompa mortis magis terret quam mors ipsa. Groans and convulsions and a discoloured face, and friends weeping and blacks and obsequies, and the like shew Death terrible.' Similarly Adam Smith[37] reminds us: 'We sympathize even with the dead, and overlooking what is of real importance in their situation . . . we are chiefly affected by those circumstances which strike our senses.'

Ch. 13. The central subject of this chapter is the manner in which the deity within us is to be maintained in that purity which enables it to be the organ of intercourse with God, to be in contact with God, as was said at the end of the last chapter. The opening words are, however, difficult to interpret. Do they condemn the endless, restless curiosity for knowledge which the quotation from Pindar illustrates in the Theaetetus of Plato, from which Marcus seems to have taken it? There Plato contrasts the absorption of the philosopher in what he holds to be real with his neglect of everyday interests, the affairs of his neighbour, and even the business of his city. Here Marcus seems to condemn alike the curiosity of speculative inquiry and the curiosity as to our neighbours, and to treat them as similar in character. He takes an opposite view of the speculative activity of the mind in xi. 1.

The explanation is probably that he wishes to put everything else aside by comparison with devotion to the God within.

This cult of the Genius or Daemon forms perhaps the most remarkable problem in our Book. Does Marcus think of it as the godhead which has taken up its abode in him? That is the natural interpretation of what he says here and in ch. 17. In other places he identifies this Divinity with mind, what Locke calls 'that thinking thing within you', that which in Aristotle's De Anima alone survives death, because it belongs to universal mind. Marcus has asserted in ch. 1 that the mind of man is a particle of divine origin. This, strictly taken, must mean something material, however much refined, and the doctrine would agree with what many Stoics held, that the infant at birth inhales the mind element from the circumambient atmosphere. This would conform with what Marcus says elsewhere of the destiny of the soul at the dissolution which is death.[38] He seems to think of the souls as becoming reabsorbed into the air and so into the ultimate fire. But his physical and material view is not in question here. He seems to be conscious of the indwelling of a divine spirit, not merely of a divine understanding nor of a part of the world substance and world soul.

There are similar expressions, belonging to a devotional manner of thought, not only in many Roman Stoics, but also in the Greek thinkers of that school, and before them in Plato. Thus Manilius says: 'into whom God descends and dwells',[39] and Lucan: 'full of the God, whom he bore in his silent mind.'[40] Seneca, still more remarkably, says: 'God is near you, is with you, is within . . . a sacred spirit resides within us, observer and guardian of our good and ill', and again he speaks of 'God, a guest within man's body'.[41] Even more plainly Epictetus asserts: 'Zeus has set every man's divinity to care for him, and to be his guardian: this divinity sleeps not and cannot be controverted'; and again 'the God is within and your divinity within'.[42] Similar thoughts are already in Plato's Timaeus, whether derived from contemporary religious speculation or from Pythagorean and Orphic influences, and many now think that Xenocrates, a successor of Plato in the Academy, developed this 'daemonizing' side of his master and that it passed into Stoicism through the labours of Cicero's teacher Posidonius. The latter said: 'the cause of passions, that is of disagreement (with Nature) and of an unhappy life, is not to follow always the deity in man, which is akin to and has a similar nature with that which governs the whole universe.'[43]

The exact history of this remarkable doctrine of the Genius is obscure, but, whether or not it was inherent in Stoicism from its inception (as Bonhöffer, for instance, maintained), it illustrates a double tendency, not only in Stoicism but in Greek thought generally. There is on the one hand an attempt to give reasonable expression to men's ordinary beliefs, on the other an effort to retain the substance of those beliefs, however much the reasoning process may have modified them. 'Greek thought moved from Myth to Logos', it has been said, and in Plato myth remains by the side of reason in his most completed work. To Roman thinkers, though not so much in Marcus, this kind of religious speculation was made easier by the deep-seated belief in the good genius of the family, and the genius or spiritual power in the individual's being. These notions were also present to the Greek naive consciousness, and were submitted by philosophers to extreme rationalization, whereas by the more religious thinkers and the great mass of unconscious men they were used to embody that without which ordinary belief and philosophic interpretation both became unintelligible.

The remarkable feature in all Marcus' meditations is the way in which he keeps himself true to a spiritual conviction of the communion between God and man, free from the superstitions of a world full of strange credulity and fantastic devotions.

Ch. 14. Like ch. 12 this chapter is written in the interests of disillusionment. To emphasize life's brevity is intended to make death seem less dreadful.

Two lines of thought are combined: we lose by death no more than we lose as each moment of the present passes, and secondly, death does not rob us of any new experience, since life has revealed all its secrets to one who has lived even a little while.

The former thought is repeated, differently put, in the second half of § 2. The very old man and the infant dying immaturely suffer an identical loss, the present passing moment. Both thoughts are derived from the Epicurean school; they appear in Lucretius, the first[44] in the form that however long a man lives, death that lasts for eternity still awaits him; the difference between a long and a short life is negligible when compared with Eternal Time. The same reasoning is used by Pascal:[45] 'Is not the duration of our life equally removed from eternity, even should it last ten years more? In view of these infinities, all finites are equal.' The argument is that infinite time + 1 year = infinite time + 101 years, but it is false to conclude from this that one year of finite existence = 101 years.

Marcus prefers to say that life consists of separate units, only one of which is destroyed by death; one day is negligible by comparison with infinite time; so that the old man and the child alike lose only a negligible duration of existence, one day.

The second reflection (about the sameness of experience) is given identically in Lucretius:[46] 'all things remain the same if you live a very long life, and still more so if you were never to die.' He seems to have in mind the misery of Tithonus. The points made by both writers appear to be subtle perhaps, but false and frigid, like Pope's:

The blest to-day is as completely so
As who began a thousand years ago,[47]

which is, some critics suppose, what Marcus intends here.

Ch. 15. Monimus, a Cynic philosopher, used to say: 'Everything is fancy'; 'Everything is vanity'. He went further in his scepticism, declaring that what men take for reality is like the background in a theatre,[48] 'the painted veil called life'.

The objection which was taken is obvious, says Marcus; no doubt it was the retort that, if the dictum were true, his own scepticism was itself an illusion. We can, however, take the dictum for our own use, to correct man's vain affectation of himself and his knowledge. Marcus sometimes himself speaks[49] as if all man's life were a dream and a delirium, as though he thought 'our little life is rounded with a sleep'.

He normally uses Monimus' text, however, to mean that everything depends upon our judgement about it, nothing is good or bad but 'thinking makes it so'.[50] If the reason is truly awake, the judgement is enlightened; the good man corrects his false imaginations, distinguishes what is good, sees the good even in apparent evil. The bad, on the other hand, have a tainted imagination, in their ignorance they cannot distinguish light from darkness, as he said in ch. 13, to which this chapter perhaps originally belonged.

The same is true of the intellectual life; truth, for the Stoics, resulted from acquiescence, after due scrutiny, in a clear and distinct apprehension. Bion[51] puts well and simply what Marcus means: 'the pain of things arises because of man's judgement (the word Monimus used in the sense of "fancy"); judge of them like Socrates: you will suffer no pain; judge of them amiss: you will be hurt by your own moods, your own false opinion.' So Marcus says:[52] 'Remove the judgement: with it the "I am hurt" is removed; remove the "I am hurt": the hurt itself is gone.'

Ch. 16. Marcus here sums up much of what he has been saying before. There are five ways in which the soul of man does outrage to itself, abandons self-reverence.[53] By this outrage it becomes a foreign growth in the Universe, superfluous and injurious to the whole. 'The Stoics used to say that the selfish man is a cancer in the Universe . . . the parallel is scientifically exact.'[54] Such evil, Marcus says, is 'disobedience to the reason and ordinance of the most reverend City and Commonwealth'.

This is his first mention of the greatest of Stoic ideas, the Eternal City in which all outward differences of race, creed, station, and gifts disappear beside the power of reason, which enables men to live in equal communion with one another and the gods.

From one point of view the Roman Empire represented to contemporary thinkers this realm of equal right and law. Polybius,[55] the Greek historian, had seen this in the days of the younger Scipio; Plutarch[56] recognized the truth in the first century a.d. The Romans, he thought, were realizing what Alexander the Great had begun. Marcus himself is conscious of this.[57] From a second and deeper standpoint, the Emperor is suggesting the City of the Universe (St. Augustine's Civitas Dei, Kant's Kingdom of Ends). He had read the story of the past too well to dream that even the great world-power, which he governed, would last beyond its appointed hour. The City of God, of which he is thinking here, is eternal, founded in the heavens.

Of its 'reason and ordinance' again there are two aspects, the temporal and the eternal. For those who saw in Rome the Immortal City, the Roman law, which flourished under the Antonines, partly quickened by the Stoic ideas of natural law and equity, is the expression of this ordered Reason. Marcus must have been aware of this, as we see from his own words, from the language of his legislation and of the great jurists who served him. But here he is thinking of eternal law, that of which human enactments are a mere shadow. He puts before himself the common law, the common Logos, which belong to the commonwealth of gods and men.[58]

Ch. 17. This chapter, evidently conceived as an Epilogue to the Book, has been termed[59] a 'Sursum corda, le dernier mot du Stoïcisme'.

It falls into two parts; the first is prompted by the mention of the Eternal City at the close of ch. 16. By contrast, all mortal life is small and transitory, a pilgrimage in a foreign land, like 'the remembrance of a guest that tarrieth but a day'.[60]

Strictly man's reasonable home is here and now, he must live in the present. The writer has unconsciously passed to the thought of that most reverend City as the place of man's inheritance, 'that imperial palace whence he came', the land of Promise.

The second thought is that the love of wisdom and the cult of the God within is the sole safe-conduct for man, detained for a moment in this swiftly vanishing scene. The maxims of Philosophy are the chart whereby he may steer a true course and await Death with contentment, as Nature's good purpose and his own:

Que l'homme est malheureux qui au monde se fie!
O Dieux, que veritable est la Philosophic,
Qui dit que toute chose à la fin perira,
Et qu'en changeant de forme une autre vestira.[61]

FootnotesEdit

  1. Tennyson, Oenone.
  2. M. Ant. xi. 27.
  3. Ibid. iv. 49; ix. 42.
  4. Ibid. v. 65 viii. 40.
  5. Pater, Plato and Platonism, p. 129.
  6. Il. xi. 401.
  7. St. Augustine, Confessions, iv. 16. 31.
  8. Sir Tho. Browne, Religio Medici, ii. 11.
  9. Cic. De Finibus, ii. 45; cf. Tennyson's Oenone, cited above.
  10. M. Ant. iii. 16, 1; xii. 3.
  11. Ibid. ii. 17.
  12. Sen. Ep. 106. 12.
  13. Montaigne, Essais, iii. 12 (tr. Cotton).
  14. Pope, Essay on Man, ii. 46.
  15. e.g. the discussion of the meaning of Logos in Faust.
  16. M. Ant. vi. 16. 5.
  17. The Rise of the Greek Epic³, p, 89.,
  18. M. Ant. vi. 30. 1.
  19. l.c. p. 90.
  20. 'ti farà piu della porpora arrossire', in the dedication to his translation of Marcus into Italian, 1675.
  21. M. Ant. iv. 1; v. 20; vi. 50.
  22. 'mortua cui vita est prope iam vivo atque videnti', Lucr. 3. 1046 (Dryden' translation, line 263).
  23. See the brilliant pages in De Brev. Vitae, ch. 2.
  24. Ennius, Sc. 240 ed. Vahlen.
  25. Essais, i. 3 (Cotton).
  26. M. Ant. v. 21; v. 34; xi. 1.
  27. Pl. Leg. 663 e.
  28. Arlst. Eth. Nic. vii. 6.
  29. M. Ant. vii. 33; vii. 64; ix. 41; xi. 26.
  30. He puts this, in the manner of Socrates: 'if to a further existence, then there are gods too in that world; if to insensibility, you will rest from pleasures and pains', iii. 3.
  31. Epict. i 1. 12.
  32. De Benef. ii. 29; cf. Epist. 58. 27.
  33. See especially Lucr. 3. 881.
  34. Sen. Ep. 14. 6; 24. 12 and 14; 120. 18.
  35. Essais, i. 19.
  36. Essay on Death, 'Death's sad array, not Death itself, alarms men.'
  37. Moral Sentiments, i. 1. 1.
  38. M. Ant. iv. 4 and 21.
  39. Manil. ii. 107.
  40. Pharsalia, ix. 563.
  41. Sen. Ep. 41. 2.
  42. Epict. i. 14. 12 and 14.
  43. ap. Galen, v. 469.
  44. Lucr. 3. 1090.
  45. Pensées, Sect. ii. 72 Brunschvicg.
  46. Lucr. 3. 947.
  47. Essay on Man, 1. 75.
  48. Sextus Emp. Math. 7. 88, cf. 8. 5. Pascal says 'l'imagination dispose de tout' and refers to an Italian book: Della opinione regina del mondo; ii, § 82 Br.
  49. M. Ant. ii. 17; iv. 3. 4.
  50. Ibid. iii. 9; iv. 39; xii. 8, 22, 25, and 26.
  51. Stobaeus, Eclog. iii, p. 41 Wachsmuth and Hense.
  52. M. Ant. iv. 7.
  53. Ibid. ii. 5 and 16.
  54. W. R. Inge, Personal Idealism and Mysticism, p. 111.
  55. Polyb. 1. 2. 7; 1. 3. 4.
  56. Plu. De Fort. Alex. 1. 6–8; De Fort. Rom. 1–2.
  57. M. Ant. i. 14.
  58. See the splendid words in iv. 4.
  59. Fournier's edit, of Couat's Les Pensées de Marc-Aurèle, note to ii. 17.
  60. Wisdom 5. 14, quoted by Pascal in a passage which appears to have been inspired in part by M. Ant. iv. 3. 3, Pensées, § 205 Br.
  61. Ronsard, Elegy II, 'The Wood-cutters of Gastine'.