The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Antoninus/Commentary on Book 3

BOOK III

This Book has a happier tone than the second, and the language is less abstract and impersonal; the writer seems to be in a clearer atmosphere, above the mists of difficulty and doubt, the melancholy sense of transience and human futility which lies at least on the surface of Book ii. The sentences convey an impression of personal devotion to a religious ideal, an evident warmth of feeling, a sentiment which rarely recurs in the Meditations until we reach the closing Book. This effect is produced partly by the repeated call to austere self-dedication in the presence of approaching death, partly by the recognition of the 'God seated within', the visitant from another world, of whom Marcus hardly speaks again until the closing pages.

The whole Book gives a sense of unity of composition, which is reflected in the linguistic expression; there is a recurrence of arresting words and phrases, many of them peculiar to this Book. As I have said elsewhere, the general character may correspond to the circumstances in which the reflections were composed, a time of relative quiet at general head-quarters, in Carnuntum, from which this part of the Meditations is dated.

Chs. 1–3. These three chapters are designed as a preface to the precepts which begin in ch. 4. The familiar thought that life is spending itself day by day is reinforced by the reminder that man's mental powers often wane before the body is exhausted. He says that he must press on 'while the evil days come not nor the years draw nigh' when the power of understanding 'truths human and divine' will be darkened.

Ch. 1. The phrase, 'knowledge of divine and human things', is a Stoic definition of philosophy. The Stoics generalized the view common to Greeks and Romans that men's happiness lies in keeping the religious observances of their fathers, in showing justice and generosity to their fellows. The formula embraced what, in other words, Marcus calls the Holy and the Right (xi. 20, 21; xii. 1).

The Stoic creed universalized this national expression of religious and social duty to include the duty which is common to all men. To live by the right rule of Nature was to become a member of the Commonwealth of gods and men (iv. 4). Thus they gave a wider and richer sense to Plato's words: 'to be like God is to become just and holy by the aid of understanding.'[1]

But while Plato and Aristotle found in the contemplation of the pure objects of scientific reason that which satisfied and elevated the character, gave man all that he could attain of immortality, the Stoics, and especially the Roman Stoics, thought that this knowledge of divine law pointed primarily to right conduct. Thus Lactantius, writing about a.d. 300 for Roman Christians, summarizes Cicero's doctrine in the words: 'God's law orders always the right and honest, forbids the wrong and dishonourable . . . this is the most holy and sure ordinance that we must obey, in order to live justly and lawfully.'[2] Seneca puts the ideal less legalistically: 'a good man must exhibit the utmost piety towards the gods. Therefore, whatever befalls him he will bear with equanimity. He will know that it has come to pass by divine Law, whereby the Universe is ordered. This being so, his sole good is what is right.'[3]

For Marcus this knowledge means the joyous acceptance of God's dispensation, the submission of man's will to His, but also the duty of justice and kindness to all men; 'following God in due order, uttering no word contrary to Truth, doing no act contrary to Justice'.[4]

Ch. 2. The thought of old age and the inevitable decline of strength leads Marcus to reflect upon phenomena which are, superficially viewed, painful, injurious, and ugly. These, he says, are secondary and consequent upon primary laws which are good. The Stoic theory was that apparent evil is to be explained as a necessary result of the 'leading principles'. If these are good, then their consequences also must be good. Marcus does not here state, much less try to establish, this doctrine. Nor does he, except by implication, use the doctrine to explain the extreme case of mental decrepitude from which he started. Instead he gives instances of the beauty and use of what is, at first sight, failure. Both in the artificial creations of man and in the changing seasons of Nature, instances abound of a subtle charm which accompanies apparent ugliness and decay. He reads this lesson in the baker's loaf and in the mellow tints of autumn.

Next he adds a further consideration, that of Nature's purposiveness, her adaptation of means to ends. To the student of Nature the loose overhanging skin of the lion's forehead, so forbidding to a child's eye, is evidence of purpose. It assists, so Aristotle had surmised, the lion's vision; it exhibits the adaptation of structure to end. The grown man delights in this mark of purpose in the handiwork of the artist Nature as much as he had once enjoyed the evidence of the human artist's skill in the portraiture of these natural features. Thus, very simply, Marcus passes from the recognition of external utility to the principle of immanent purpose.

The close of the chapter is brief, compressed almost to enigma. He recurs to the problem of senile decay and death. In the white hair and wrinkled face of age he detects a purpose, and therefore a beauty, even a bloom as of autumn; a supervenient charm like the complexion of adolescence, when life is at its spring time. The comparison of age to autumn, of youth to spring dictates a final reflection. To one who has kept watch on Nature youthful beauty will take a 'sober colouring', will excite no passion, but only awaken the admiration which Nature's handiwork inspires.

The connexion, if not the identification, of the pleasure aroused by beauty with the pleasure in the recognition of purpose or design goes back to Socrates. Xenophon[5] reports Socrates as saying to Aristippus, the Hedonist, that all good and beautiful things are such in reference to the purposes which they serve. The argument before us, however, seems to be directly connected with Aristotle's eloquent defence of the study of the whole animal kingdom. 'If seen through the eyes of science,' he says, 'they are so fashioned by Nature as to give infinite pleasure to one who is enabled to recognize their reasons, the natural philosopher, in fact. A strange paradox, to enjoy the sight of pictures of them because we see at the same time the human art which fashioned those pictures, and yet not to delight even more in the contemplation of Nature's living works, when we are enabled to see the reason why. And so we must not feel a child's distaste in seeing animals which have little honour, for in all natural things . . . we find the evidence of purpose in an eminent degree, and the purpose for which they are constructed or created occupies ground which is common with the beautiful.'[6] Similarly Galen, in his treatise upon the structure of the body in reference to its functions, writes: 'You will discover the beauty of a bodily organ by a comparison of its construction with its uses: this is your canon, measure, and test of natural excellence as well as of true beauty.'[7] The remark that the relation of pleasure in beauty to pleasure in function not only removes any natural repugnance to 'the parallels on beauty's brow', but also sublimates the contemplation of youthful beauty, appears to be original to Marcus.

Ch. 3. The work of Nature is not only life, but change and death. The happy tone of ch. 2 gives place to what are almost cynical reflections upon mortality:

The sceptre, learning, physic must
All follow this, and come to dust. (Shirley.)

The chapter, like iv. 48 and vi. 57, belongs in form and content to that strain of reflection upon life which Marcus employs as a meditation for death. This vein, half of irony, half of consolation, recurs from time to time in the Meditations; here irony unexpectedly predominates. What did his skill avail the father of medicine, the lesson of the stars those wise men of the East? Great generals, God's scourges of mankind, went the way of all flesh. Heraclitus died a death which was a parody of his own doctrine. Democritus, the father of atomism, was the prey of minute pests, Socrates of pests in human guise. The expected conclusion does not follow; it is postponed to iv. 10. Instead the answer is like that given in ii. 11, that man is master of himself in the hour of death. Marcus adds the image of life's voyage, the haven, and the landing on the farther shore, and what Socrates prophesied should be there, a world governed like this world by the gods, or else the unawakening sleep. He has in mind the conviction that Socrates expressed to his judges: 'It is not permitted by God that evil men should hurt the good', and again: 'now the time is come to go away, you to live and I to die, but which to the better destiny is known only to God.'[8]

Chs. 4–12. With the words 'do not waste the balance of life left to you' the writer resumes the opening sentence of ch. I, and occupies himself up to the end of ch. 12 with a statement from various angles of a good man's and a good ruler's ideal. Nowhere else in the Meditations is this personal ideal stated with such fullness and nobility; nowhere else is such emphasis laid upon the service of the God within, and the need for entire candour of thought and deed. The images of the wrestler at the games, of the robe dyed in the unfading colour of justice, of the soldier at his post waiting for 'kind Nature's signal of retreat' are effectively suggested; nor does the Emperor forget that he is the first magistrate of Rome, with the care of a world on his shoulders. He needs no oath of service, looks not to men for approval; rather he regards the

perfect witness of all judging Jove;
As he pronounces lastly on each deed.

In the language of à Kempis: 'he that seeks no witness for himself without, has clearly committed himself wholly unto God'.[9]

Ch. 4. The principal subject of this chapter is the opinion of others, the question of the weight which the good man should allow to his reputation in the world. The answer is that, except where the common interest requires, our own conduct, not the acts or judgements of our neighbours, is our proper concern. This concern with ourselves will not be injurious if wc are careful of our own thoughts, certain that, if they were laid open to the light of day, they would bear inspection. This leads to the profession of § 3, the ideal of a priest and minister of the gods, and to the half-satirical question of § 4, why wc should regard the opinions of men who do not share our ideals, and who are not even, if the truth were known, acceptable to themselves. This passage and some others in the Meditations have been criticized as self-righteous. This complaint against the Stoic ideal of the wise man was common in antiquity. On the point at issue here Cicero says in his worldly-wise way: 'we must pay some respect to men, whether the best of them or the rank and file. To neglect what every man thinks of one is the part not only of an arrogant, but even of an abandoned man.'[10] Similarly Tacitus remarks that 'by the contempt of fame, virtue is contemned'[11]; and Fronto, Marcus' rhetoric tutor, writes to him: 'it is true that he who ignores the reputation of virtue, ignores also virtue itself.[12] Among the grain and chaff of the biographer of Marcus there is the tradition that 'he was very curious of his reputation, and required exact information of what was said of him, correcting what he thought justly criticized', and again: 'either in writing or in speech he answered malicious critics'. Further there is a recorded saying: 'it is fairer for me to follow the advice of so many and such good friends, than for my many and good friends to obey my single wishes.'[13] There is no grave inconsistency between this tradition and what Marcus says here, where he is writing for his own private guidance. Milton says[14]

Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil
Nor in the glistering foil
Set off to the world, nor in broad rumour lies.

And so Socrates says to Crito:[15] 'We must not, my good friend, entertain a thought of what the multitude will say of us, but only of what he who knows about justice and injustice will say, and Truth herself.'

Ch. 5. This chapter comes closer to the writer's everyday task of government. In ii. 5 there is the same insistence on the Emperor's proud inheritance of the name Roman. Here he further reminds himself that he is Rome's magistrate, a constitutional ruler. Renan[16] writes: 'La tradition romaine est un dogme pour Marc-Aurèle . . . Les préjugés du stoicien se doublèrent ainsi de ceux du patrioter.' Another French critic[17] says: 'Ce juste orgueil que ressent une âme aussi indépendante et aussi désintéressée que celle de l'Empereur philosophe, est de toutes les nations et de tous les temps. . . . C'est comme une religion, qui a aussi ses indomptables martyrs.' Of his father-in-law, Antoninus Pius, Marcus says: 'he did everything according to the tradition of his fatherland, but he did not attempt to seem to others to be observing tradition' (i. 16. 6), that is, he did what he did to restore old religious beliefs and customs, without reference to his reputation.

The grand simile of the soldier 'waiting for the Retreat to sound' is used by S. Johnson in The Vanity of Human Wishes,

For Faith that panting for a holier seat
Counts Death kind Nature's signal of Retreat.

Ch. 6. The old problem of the relation of virtue to advantage, and the kindred question, which of the many ends that man has proposed to himself is his true end. The answer to the first resembles that of Bishop Butler in his sermon on Self-love. Nature, said the Stoics, has made all her creatures endeavour to persist in their own being. Man's being is, when he reaches his true nature, a life of reasonable will. This then is the advantage which Nature's purpose intends. Marcus returns to this problem more than once, notably in v. 16, where he identifies the advantage and the good of every man with his true end in living, and at vi. 44, where advantage is said to be determined by man's reasonable and social constitution, and by his place in the world. Here the problem is put half-ironically. The language chosen seems reminiscent of the famous paradox debated in Plato's Republic, whether justice is the advantage of the superior (or stronger), in short, whether might is right, and, if so, what kind of might. Marcus says, in effect, that a man must choose for himself what is, in his eyes, superior. If he chooses fame, or power, or wealth, or pleasant indulgence, let him stick to his choice. But he must remember first that he is choosing what is superior in the view of his inferior self, the body or the merely animate creature, and secondly, that these unreasonable ends appear to suit only for a time, then suddenly they get the mastery, and the man who has proposed them to himself turns out to be their servant (iii. 3). The Stoics held firmly to the view, which is also the view of Socrates, that there cannot be a conflict for the good man between expediency and right, since what is right is advantageous and nothing can advantage a man which is not right.[18]

Chs. 7–8. The true advantage of the reasonable man, who has his life among his fellows, is contrasted with the miserable lot of one whose choice is governed by ends which lead him to bad faith, hatred, suspicion and so forth. What a contrast to the man who observes the ritual of the spirit within him!

Ch. 9. Marcus states more fully what was briefly hinted in ii. 15. What determines a man's conduct is his imagination. and that depends upon his judgment. If he honours and disciplines that power within him which is independent of circumstance, he can be a free man, a reasonable member of the Commonwealth, man's fellow, God's disciple.

How the judgment is to be disciplined is explained in ch. 11.

Ch. 10. The present moment, which was said in ii. 14 to be all man has, is of primary importance; a brief instant between two eternities of time (iv. 50; ix. 32; xii. 7). Compared with the Universe how small the little corner of the earth man inhabits, how small even the most lasting reputation! The object of the aphorism appears to be to humble conceit as well as to emphasize the immediacy of duty. The same order of reflection appears in Pascal,[19] with much of the same purpose: 'Que l'homme, étant revenu à soi, considère cc qu'il est au prix de ce qui est; qu'il se regarde comme égaré dans ce canton détourné de la nature, et que de ce petit cachot où il se trouve logé, j'entends l'univers, is apprenne à estimer la terre, les royaumes, les villes et soi-même son juste prix. Qu'est-ce qu'un homme dans l'infini?'

Ch. 11. This is his first statement of a method which Marcus often recommends or refers to in passing. The object is to secure sanity of judgement, to clarify and fortify the reason and will. Without clearness and distinctness, as Descartes has said, speculative investigation is deluded, practical life vague and undetermined, even misguided. To put it in the language of the Stoics, the object is to obtain the imagination which 'grasps its object', a state of mind which they regarded as the intellectual and moral criterion. The method is here applied to the objects of moral judgment. Test every experience which presents itself in order to determine what that which affects the imagination through the senses (and will therefore move the impulses) really is. Strip it of all irrelevant circumstances till it stands before you in its naked outline, unprejudiced by subjectivity. Divide it into the elements which compose it. Fortify the will by giving the true name to the object in question and to its parts. The effect is like bringing an object under the microscope into the centre of the field and focusing it.

Then, with the object thus exhibited in its entirety to the understanding, remind yourself of the nature of this Universe of which it is a part. It has its purpose, because the Universe is a providential system, no chance congeries of atoms as materialists pretend. Ask, therefore, what is the value of the present object in such a system of necessary law. Relate it to the whole system, and to your individual system, which is itself a microcosm and is so constituted as to enable you to play your part in the Kingdom of all reasonable creatures. Thus, and thus only, the object's real nature, its components, its relative worth (if it be pleasant), its transitory nature (if it be painful), may be determined. Finally, ask what virtue is appropriate to meet its challenge; in any case, remind yourself that it is derived from Nature, or is an aftereffect of a predetermined, inevitable scheme; or, should it result from a neighbour's action, remember that its apparently injurious character flows from his blindness to right, from his ignorance. Enough: realize the insight which is yours, the power of seeing from which he is debarred. This will enable you to treat him according to Nature's law of fellowship, though you will endeavour to understand the merely relative worth of what is morally indifferent (viz. that the apparent injury cannot affect your own moral life, ii. 1).

This remarkable chapter is in fact a plea for that disinterestedness which the Stoics called 'indifference', a term easily misunderstood and misrepresented. The attempt is to reach in moral life that purely objective standard which is the ambition in the intellectual life of all true followers of science. We cannot doubt its strengthening and salutary effect upon character; the question is whether, so rigorously pursued, it does not produce in the moral self a hardness and lack of sensibility, which is injurious to the whole.[20]

Ch. 12. A reassertion of the ideal, which was put more at large in ch. 6, a reaffirmation of the claim of the Deity within; finally, an assertion of moral freedom.

Ch. 13. After a comparison of the philosopher's maxims to the physician's instruments, which are always in readiness, Marcus reasserts and develops the statement of ch. 1 about the 'knowledge of the divine and human'. Right conduct depends on recognition of the intimate bond between man's reasonable life and the divine world of law and order. Right relation to man demands reference to natural law, to the reason realized in the Universe; right behaviour towards God requires the recognition of man's bond to all his fellow men.

Ch. 14. Duty requires every other occupation to be put aside (ii. 2 and 3), even the innocent intellectual pursuits reserved for declining years. This is the fullest reference to the author's literary labours, outside his youthful correspondence with Fronto. The Note-books may be lecture notes (the word is used in that sense) or possibly jottings for the work we have before us. The histories of old Greeks and Romans may be such as old Cato wrote for his son, 'that he might learn of the great deeds of old Rome, and the customs (i. 16. 6) of his fatherland'.[21] The Extracts were no doubt largely of commonplaces, like the prose and poetry we meet with in Books vii and xi.

Ch. 15. One of those intrusive fragments, disturbing the natural sequence. The meaning is enigmatic, though the general purport is that the foolish neither understand the world they live in, nor the real meaning of the words they use. Marcus seems to have been meditating in the satirical vein of a favourite author, Heraclitus, who contrasts[22] the outward senses with the inward vision: 'the many do not understand the things they meet with, nor when they are told of them do they know what they mean, though they appear to themselves to understand.'

Ch. 16. The same tripartite division of man as in ii. 2. Commentators have all felt great difficulty in the ascription of reason to atheists and unpatriotic evil-doers. Observe, however, that the writer is careful to say: 'to have the mind as guide to what appear to be duties'. Men possess mind by contrast with beasts who have no more than 'spirit', or 'animal spirit'. The difference between ordinary men and instructed men is that the latter's minds are directed to right ends. These right ends are, to sum up what he has said in this Book, 'to love and welcome what befalls a man and is ordained for him, to keep the divinity untainted by evil imaginations, to follow God, to speak the truth and to act justly'.

There is a further difficulty. Who are the men who disbelieve in the gods, betray their country, do evil behind locked doors? Mr. Haines[23] has suggested that the Emperor means the Christians, against whom precisely these charges were levelled. We should then have a severe condemnation of his Christian subjects, insinuated and not openly stated, by the ruler whom Mr. Haines regards as having been actually favourable to the infant Church. The same charges were levelled against the followers of Epicurus by the vulgar, and Lucian classes them with the Christians as atheists. But Marcus founded an Epicurean chair at Athens, and though he criticizes their atomism and their pursuit of pleasure, he nowhere passes a moral censure upon them. Rather, like Seneca, he takes comfort from some of their brave sayings (vii. 33. 64; ix. 41; xi. 26). Is it necessary to suppose that he means any others than those evil men, whom he so often refers to as ignorantly doing evil in darkness? (iii. 4. 4; vi. 59; x. 13.)

With regard to Nero, it is remarkable how soon he became the type of a tyrant, taking the place which Caligula holds in the pages of Seneca. Epictetus[24] couples his name with that of Sardanapalus, and Nero became the Antichrist in early Christian literature.

The Book ends, like the last, with an effective epilogue, the final words, 'in accord with the genius allotted to him at birth', introducing under the name of Moira the divinity within the breast (iii. 4. 3).

FootnotesEdit

  1. Pl. Tht. 176 b.
  2. Div. Inst. vi. 24.
  3. Sen. Ep. 76. 23.
  4. M. Ant. iii. 16; xii. 1.
  5. Mem. iii. 8. 4–7.
  6. Arist. De Part. Anim. i. 5.
  7. Galen, De usu partium, iii, p. 24; cf. 'There is in these works of Nature, which seem to puzzle reason, something Divine, and hath more in it than the eye of a common spectator doth discover' Browne, Rel. Med. i. 39.
  8. Pl. Apology of Socrates, 30 c, 42 a.
  9. Imit. Christi ii. 6, cf. M. Ant. iii. 16.
  10. Cic. Off. i. 99.
  11. Tac. Ann. iv. 38.
  12. Fronto, Ep. p. 195 Naber.
  13. Hist. Aug. iv. 20. 5; 22. 4–5.
  14. Milton, Lycidas, 78.
  15. Pl. Crito, 48 a.
  16. Renan, Marc-Aurèle, p. 54.
  17. Barthélemy-St. Hilaire, Pensèes de M.-A., p. 61.
  18. Cic. Off. iii, esp. ch. 8.
  19. Pascal, Pensées, 72 Br.
  20. See also iv. 7; vi. 8 and 13; ix. 36; xi. 2; xii. 8 and 18.
  21. Plu. Cato Major, ch. 20.
  22. Heraclitus, Fr. 5 B, 17 D; cf. M. Ant. iv. 29; iv. 46.
  23. Haines, The Communings with Himself (Loeb series), p. 381; Journal of Phil. xxxiii, p. 288.
  24. Epict. iii. 22. 30.