The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Antoninus/Commentary on Book 4


With this Book we enter upon a series of Meditations composed in a manner markedly different from the second and third Books. The tone is less personal and devotional, more speculative and doctrinal; the style too is easier and less condensed. In particular the indwelling spirit is rarely mentioned, appeal being rather made to Universal Nature and to man's Intelligence as a part of that Nature. Not until Book xii do we again meet that personal emotion and aspiration which make Books ii and iii so individual and intense. There are indeed exceptional outbursts of personal feeling, but on the whole these central Books might have been intended for the use of a learner rather than for solitary self-revelation. Moreover, much that was earlier taken for granted is here stated more fully, and new and larger matters are introduced. Thus we have the question of retirement or retreat from the world (chs. 3 and 24); the alternative between an ordered providential system and a mechanical atomistic theory (chs. 3. 2 and 27); the problem of the soul's persistence after death (ch. 21, contrast iii. 3); the great conception of the Eternal City and its law (chs. 4, 12, and 23, contrast ii. 16); the declaration of the intrinsic worth of Goodness and Beauty (ch. 20, contrast iii. 2). Again, the writer puts more fully and more clearly the Stoic belief in the sympathetic unity which underlies and governs the ceaseless coming into particular being and passing away of the world of experience, and with this he connects the doctrine of Heraclitus of Ephesus (chs. 36, 42, 43, 45, and 46).

Against this background of ordered change his own life and fortunes, his personal fame, dwindle to their just insignificance, and death is regarded with calm detachment as a natural incident in an eternal process. All that is required of a man is to maintain his moral independence, 'to be free and to regard circumstance as a man, a human being, a member of the Eternal City, a mortal.'[1] This moral independence is secured by the assertion of the reason, which is his individual nature, by continual control of his thoughts and imaginations, by right and beneficent conduct to his neighbour, by a joyous acceptance of the portion assigned to him from eternity.

Of the date of composition there is no evidence, unless we may suppose that the figure of the sands of oblivion (ch. 33), the mention of embalming (ch. 48), the references to the destruction of Helice (ch. 48) and to the pyramids (v. 8) were suggested by the Emperor's visit to Egypt and the East in a.d. 175–6.

Chs. 1–5. The first five chapters arise from reflection upon two difficulties of the moral life, difficulties which had often been pressed against the Stoics. The first is the problem of reconciling moral freedom with the facts of human experience and with the ordered, inevitable process of a Universe governed by law and apparently ignoring the individual. The second is the question of retirement or withdrawal from the world. Actual political and moral life being so manifestly imperfect, and philosophy being a protest against evil and injustice, should not the wise man retire from practical life, like Socrates, and 'shelter' in Plato's words 'behind a wall'? Then, if a man chooses retirement, what is the nature and meaning of that withdrawal? The answers to these questions are connected with one another. To the first Marcus replies that he must adapt himself to circumstance, turning apparent evil to his own good by the use of the appropriate virtue, as a strong fire converts its material to itself (ch. 1). The good man is a trained artist in living; he does not create the stuff he works in, he takes and handles it with a devotion which is like that of the artist with his given material (ch. 2). This he expresses elsewhere as the truth that apparent evil, like the artist's stubborn material, strengthens a man by an opposition to be convinced or overcome (v. 20; vi. 50; viii. 41; x. 33. 4).

Ch. 3. The question of retreat is answered by the distinction of the two lives of action and of meditation. The wisdom of the answer is that the connexion between the two lives (or aspects of living) is made quite clear. To retire is not to seek refuge from the world, but to find in reflection the maxims which are to make living possible and good. This he pictures here by the image of retirement into the little country place which is the soul's domain. Elsewhere he speaks of a virgin citadel, and again of seeking refreshment from a hard stepmother in a mother's society (viii. 48; vi. 12).

The terms which he uses, especially the word for 'retreat', might evidently be taken in a mystical sense. This is true also of other passages of the Meditations. Thus he speaks of 'drawing inward into the self' (vii. 28; viii. 48; ix. 42); of finding the fountain of good within (vii. 59); of making himself simple (iv. 26); language which anticipates that used by Neoplatonists about the soul. What is so admirable in Marcus is that this return to the self is no absorption in the self, but an appeal by the self to the reasonable principles of philosophy, as may be seen from the simple truths which he gives as those to which the self returns. This explains the connexion with ch. 4. By withdrawing from all outward distractions to the reasonable self, he is enabled to recognize the common law which unites him to his fellows and to the Universe, so that he can realize his membership with them in one eternal Commonwealth. The longing for repose and rest he meets by the challenge to live now and always by the reason of the mind which runs through all and governs all. A passage from Seneca will make the meaning clearer. He says: 'Let us have in mind two cities, one that great and truly universal city, the home of gods and of men, wherein we look neither to this little corner nor to that, but measure the boundaries of our fatherland by the sun. The other city is that bestowed upon us by the conditions of our birth. . . . To that greater city we can be servants in our hours of retirement, and perhaps better then, for then we may inquire of the nature of goodness . . .?[2]

What Marcus well says is that there is nothing to prevent our making the law of the Eternal City the rule of our daily life; there is nothing to prevent our closing the door (to use his image) for a moment upon the temporal, and renewing ourselves by the Eternal. Notice how he ignores all the easy commonplaces of essays upon exile, upon retirement, upon loss; the favourite topics that the soul can nowhere escape itself, that it bears its own burden into the retreats which it seeks, that:

All places that the eye of heaven visits
Are to the wise man ports and happy havens.

He ends the fourth chapter with the argument that the existence of the Eternal City, thus established by reason, is proof that man's reason flows from the reason which rules and inspires the City of God. He leaves room for an immaterial origin of the reason of man, but he seems himself to be referring to a doctrine of Aristotle's school, viz. that the reasonable self is derived from a fifth element, which inhabits the region of the fiery ether. He clearly distinguishes the source of man's reason from the fire which is the origin of the quickening spirit in the body, the vital spirit'[3] At least Marcus makes evident the difficulty of a material explanation. Similarly in ch. 5, reflecting upon death, in connexion with the problem of the source of man's reason, he is content to say that both birth and death are mysteries of Nature (ix. 9; x. 7).

Chs. 4–5. The grand conception that the Universe is a society of all reasonable beings, governed by divine law, well befits the ruler of the Roman world and the source of Roman law. This city of reason is taken here to follow of necessity from the fact that mind is common, that is, general or universal. Two different lines of reasoning appear to be combined. Mind transcends particularity, bridging the gulf which in appearance divides men (with their individual persons, wills, ends, senses) from one another by means of the reason which they have in common. One expression of this reason is the legislative reason, which itself finds expression in a law common to gods and men. Secondly, mind is common, and because men have this link they are fellow beings or kinsmen, members not of one community of blood but of one fellowship of reason. This was assumed in Book ii, ch. 1, 'we came into the world to work together'.

The arguments are often identified by modern thinkers, but are not the same. Marcus is, however, entitled to use the second, because it ultimately rests upon an argument from the purpose exhibited in the world (v. 30; ix. 9. 1). Here he is concerned with the former line of reasoning, and the remarkable similarity to the language of Cicero[4] shows that the argument is derived from the Stoic school at least of the second century b.c. This is also clear from its form, that of a sorites, which is a favourite with the Stoics. In principle it goes much farther back than to the middle Stoics, namely to Heraclitus of Ephesus (circa 500 b.c.), who had said:[5] 'Understanding is common to all. If we speak with thought we must hold fast by that which is common to all, as a city by its law, yea much more firmly. For all human laws are sustained by one divine law;' and again, 'wherefore we must obey the common, but though reason is common, the many behave as if they had a private judgement.' The political section of Heraclitus' book appears thus to have related human law to the reason which governs the universe. This conception the Stoics adopted and gave a fuller expression to it. The likeness of Kant's moral theory to this conception is remarkable. The difference is that for Kant the intelligible world of which the moral law is the natural order is contrasted with the natural order of the phenomenal world, where necessity and natural causality obtain. For the Stoics, however difficult their view may be to support, the law of the Divine Universe which man shares with the gods is the law which rules also in the phenomenal world. As Marcus so often asserts, the freedom of man's will is expressed by his accepting unconditionally and gladly the law of the Whole; in the sense of the third chapter he can retire from the world of external conditions by realizing at any moment his own freedom, that is, by affirming and accepting the principles of the City of which he is a Freeman. This is the explanation also of what seems, at first sight, a merely formal reference to the axiom of continuity, 'nothing comes from nothing or passes into nothing' (cf. iv. 21). The Stoics combined this axiom with the principle of sufficient reason, that the process of becoming is governed by the law of necessary determination. Thus, if the material part of man is derived from and returns to the four elements, his spiritual part must be derived, on the principal of sufficient reason, from the universal mind, and into that it returns.[6]

Chs. 6–11. It is characteristic of the writer to pass from large questions to relatively small points of practice. These brief reflections turn upon two points, the difficulty of reconciling the unkindness or evil conduct of men with the reasonableness of the whole, and of explaining pain and suffering which seem to run counter to the justice and kindness of God. Chs. 6–8 and ch. 11 give remedies in practice for the former difficulty, chs. 9–10 for the latter.

Chs. 6–8. Reflections as to the right attitude to the evil and erring recur throughout the Meditations. Marcus seems to have felt the problem acutely, whether what he is concerned about is the right treatment of the wrong-doer, or the meaning in the world of such evil men and so much apparent moral evil. His ways of dealing with the question are these: (i) we cannot expect to find no wickedness in men; it is a fact of experience and must be considered to be a necessity; (2) the evil do wrong involuntarily because their moral sense has been blinded, or because they pursue private interests, and are guided by reason of a kind, but mistaken reason; (3) all men are endowed with like reason to our own: we are therefore bound to them by the tie of kindred, must therefore be concerned for the thankless and hostile so far as even to love and cherish them (this attitude gets stronger in the later books); (4) we are immune from injury, that is moral harm, from evil-doers; we can even turn their evil to our own good by using the virtuous activity which is appropriate; we can sometimes convince them, at least we can bear with them, be neither angry nor at a loss when we have to do with them; we can be merciful and forgiving, more than merely tolerant.[7]

Chs. 9–10. In suffering and sorrow, in the loss of what we held dear, we must remember that what comes to pass is dictated by the universal order, which works for the benefit of the whole. He goes farther in ch. 10, insisting that our dispensations are not only necessary but just, and just with reference to our individual good (v. 8. 18; viii. 46; x. 25).

Ch. 11. This maxim belongs to the same order of thought as ch. 6 and ch. 18. It interrupts the sequence of ch. 12 on the end of ch. 10. It is repeated with more stress on the moral aspect at vii. 22; ix. 11; xi. 18. 4.

Chs. 12–13. 'The principle of the kingly and legislative art' governs the action of the man who is to be good in the specific sense of good (end of ch. 10). The remarkable expression refers to the speculations upon the ideal king and lawgiver which we meet in Plato's Politicus and Aristotle's Politics. Similarly Socrates[8] speaks of the royal art, 'to be competent to govern and to benefit at once other men and oneself'. St. James[9] says: 'if however ye fulfil the royal law, as it is written, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself', and St. Paul[10] speaks of 'the kindness and love to man (philanthropy) of God, our Saviour'. Beneficence and Truth are often spoken of by the Greeks as the two divine attributes. This second attribute may be imitated by man, if he will put away conceit of his own opinion and embrace the truth which another declares.

The problem when and how a man may wisely 'change his mind' was commonly debated in antiquity, with Hesiod's words as text:

He is far best who knows all things of himself.
Good, he that hearkens to the right advice.[11]

Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, inverted Hesiod's order, meaning no doubt that the greatest victory over self is to abandon one's purpose, if convinced by judicious advice. The saying of Hesiod was familiar to Romans from Livy's[12] brilliant narrative of the moral conviction and repentance of Minucius Rufus, master of the horse to the great dictator Q. Fabius Maximus. The other famous instance of a change of mind is that used by Aristotle[13]—Neoptolemus repented of his purpose, after he had been persuaded by Ulysses to deceive Philoctetes. Marcus takes up the word Logos,[14] in the sense of reasonable rule, and uses it in its other sense of reason, the indwelling Logos which apprehends what is right. If this reason is active, you need nothing besides, neither thanks nor commendation (iv. 20; vii. 73; ix. 42. 4).

Chs. 14–15. These two aphorisms are rightly combined in the manuscripts. The second illustrates the first. The stress in the first sentence is on the word 'part'. The Logos of which he has been speaking is a part of the divine Logos, which 'begat' it. This will return (iv. 4) to its parent, the generative seed of reason. This return seems to be (iv. 21; viii. 25, 58; xii. 5) conceived as a gradual reabsorption into the fiery or causal Being, even as the frankincense is absorbed into the smoke of offering. So a life well lived is a dedication to God. An earlier Stoic had used this image to illustrate the unity of the world, the sweet savour of the incense transfusing like an essence the material which conveys it. The simile reminds us of St. Paul's words.[15] Bossuet[16] may have had the words of Marcus in his mind when he wrote: ' Jusqu'à ce que les ombres se dissipent et que le jour de la bienheureuse éternité paraisse, j'irai dans la solitude (cf. v. 4), sur la montagne de la myrrhe et sur la colline de l'encens (cf. x. 15), pour contempler de là les vérités éternelles et pour m'élever à Dieu par la pénitence et par l'oraison, comme l'encens monte au ciel, en se détruisant lui-même et en se consommant dans la flamme.' One of the panels of Marcus' Arch of triumph shows him in the act of offering incense (cf. x. 28).

Chs. 16–17. This is the only passage in the Meditations where the writer speaks as if a man might become a god, a mode of speech often employed both by Stoics and Epicureans. He clearly means you may become really good, and so appear godlike where you now seem like a beast or an ape, as not governed by reason; Marcus' attitude in all his thoughts is that he himself falls too short of what a man has in him to attain, and he speaks just as he had done in ii. 4 and iii. 14. (Compare ii. 5, end, v. 27.)

Ch. 18. If you are to be good, your prime concern is with your own conduct and thoughts, not with your neighbour. This will give the quiet and ease of which we heard in iii. 4 and iv. 3, and to which we shall return in iv. 24 in connexion with the Epicurean teaching on Tranquillity.

The text at the end is corrupt. Many critics suppose that the last words of this chapter were a citation from the poet Agathon, a younger contemporary of Euripides.

Chs. 19–20. The transition of thought to fame arises from the reference to other selves in ch. 18. A man who seeks fame puts himself into the hands of others and depends for satisfaction upon their judgement. Marcus has touched upon the subject already in ii. 17. 1, iv. 3. 3, and here he speaks, as elsewhere, fully upon the 'last infirmity of noble mind'.

The two chapters are complementary; the former shows the folly of desire for glory hereafter, the second reminds us that what is intrinsically good or beautiful needs no praise to recommend it. Beauty, like goodness, terminates in itself. Life's handicap is imaged under the simile of a torch race, where the relay runners pass on the torch of life, and themselves in succession fall out from the race. The beautiful picture may have been suggested by Plato's[17] 'men handing on life, from one to another, like a torch', or by Lucretius'[18] 'nations wax and wane, and in a short space the generations of the living change, and like men in a race pass on the torch of life.' Notice that Lucretius explains in this context, after the manner of his school, the problem raised in ch. 21 about disposal of dead bodies.

The desire for fame was both with Greeks and Romans a stimulus to worthy deeds in war and peace. Fame with posterity was a substitute for a belief in the survival of personality. Marcus never refers to the apotheosis of the Caesars, though he allowed Faustina's spirit to be represented as ascending to the gods. His own attitude is 'let not thy peace be in the tongues of men; for whether they construe thee well or ill: thou art not therefore another man,'[19] or, as Cicero[20] says: 'Virtue herself by her own attractions should draw you to the truth: what others may speak about you, let them look to it, but still they will speak.' The last words of this chapter are corrupt.

Ch. 20. Marcus states as self-evident the intrinsic value of the beautiful in natural and artistic objects. Then, since the term 'beautiful' covers in his philosophy both aesthetic and moral excellence, he shows that praise or blame is as irrelevant to moral good as to beauty. The instances exhibit his delicate sensibility in these matters. His theory implies that the feeling or pleasure of the observer, or the utility of the object observed, is not the determining element in the moral or aesthetic value.

The remarkable phrase 'terminates in itself' describes a psychological fact and anticipates such expressions as 'the very nature of affection, the idea itself, necessarily implies resting in its object as an end', and 'the objects of those affections are, each of them, in themselves eligible to be pursued upon its own account, and to be rested in as an end'.[21] Cicero[22] says something which approaches the idea: 'what we speak truly, even if it be praised by none, is naturally praiseworthy.'

Ch. 21. The problem is perhaps supposed to be raised by an antagonist belonging to the atomic school. On your hypothesis of the survival of the soul, which you assume to be material, however much refined, how is there room for disembodied souls in your limited universe? The answer given in both parts of the chapter turns upon the redistribution of the material elements of organized bodies, so that the conclusion seems to be that the spirit part also must be reabsorbed ultimately. This was the view entertained by most Stoics. The end of the chapter suggests a different explanation, viz. that the soul is the form or formative principle of the body. This view probably came to the Stoics from Aristotle, but even so they held that the form was not immaterial; it was the active as distinguished from the relatively passive, and as such would return to the informing reason, and be reabsorbed therein (iv. 4; vi. 24; vii. 32; viii. 25. 58; xii. 5).

Marcus is content to leave the whole question an open one, satisfied that the spirit is in the hand of God. He nowhere indulges in the comfort of that view which Cicero and Seneca handle so eloquently, the picture of the soul enjoying a blessed immortality, as in the dream of Scipio,[23] and in Seneca's[24] 'lifted up on high, he runs his race among the happy spirits; and the sacred company welcomes him, the Scipios and the Catos, men who disdained life, and were made free by the kindness of death'.

Seneca's words perhaps suggested Milton's

There entertain him all the Saints above
In solemn troops and sweet societies.[25]

Ch. 22. Before passing to ch. 23, which gives the real answer to this question of the survival of the soul, we have the practical reminder that present duty requires just conduct, and control ot the judgement in every imagination.

Ch. 23. The thought of this beautiful chapter may be illustrated from à Kempis: 'I am in Thy hand, spin me forward or spin me back.'[26] Crossley says 'it is a good example of that intensity, which, when combined with their prevailing simplicity and earnestness, raises Stoic utterances to the level of poetry'. He thinks that Milton's sonnet, 'How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth', may have been inspired by this chapter, especially the words:

Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow,
It shall be still in strictest measure ev'n.
To that same lot, however mean or high,
Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heav'n.[27]

Marcus clearly means that the fate of our spirit is irrelevant to out present purpose, for we may live here and now in the Eternal City; as Spinoza[28] says: 'the wise man is hardly moved in mind (ch. 22), but conscious by a certain eternal necessity of himself, of God, and of the universe, never ceases to exist, but is always master of a true satisfaction of spirit'.

Ch. 24. Marcus is here referring to discussions upon Tranquillity, in which a favourite text was the saying of Democritus,[29] the spirit of which had been accepted by Epicurus: 'he who intends tranquillity must avoid doing many things, in public and in private, and in what he does must not undertake what exceeds his strength and nature.' What Marcus means is that we are not to avoid public and private obligations, as some Stoics did, and as the Epicureans preferred to do. He is carrying out in this connexion the advice he gave in ch. 3 in regard to retirement. His words are not inconsistent with what Democritus said, but with the interpretation that had been put upon them. He adds a wholesome remark that if we are to avoid superfluous actions, we must control the imaginations and thoughts which lead to them.

An excellent modern book on the avoidance of plain duty through selfish sensitiveness, as a malady of civilized society, is Henri Bordeaux's Peur de vivre; much that he says will be found in Seneca, writing for a similar age.

Chs. 25–6. These chapters put in various ways the effect of carrying out the principles of ch. 24. They repeat what he has said many times already. The last words, 'be sober in relaxation', sum up what he said in reference to Democritus, and may be meant as a kind of parallel to the Epicurean maxim 'live a life which avoids observation'.

Ch. 27. The maxim, so familiar from the earlier Books, that all that comes to pass comes from the Whole (ch. 26), and is necessarily determined and connected, suggests the question: 'Why should we believe that the universe is an ordered system?' The problem is raised again at vi. 10; ix. 39; xi. 18. 1; xii. 14, and by suggestion at vii. 31. The opposed views are those of the Stoics and the Epicureans, which are represented by the antitheses of unity and unification to welter and chance medley; marshalling in order to mechanical attachment of atoms; providence to blind scattering. That is, the difference between law regarded as the expression of intelligence, and law as the outcome of accidental concurrence; living unity in the parts as opposed to composition of atoms; a world divine in all its parts and in the whole as against a world without the intervention of gods or providence. Summarily speaking, Spirit, Life, Providence against Matter, Mechanism, Accident. In xii. 14, and there alone, Marcus asks the question, debated within the Stoic school itself, whether the order of the Universe, marshalled from a remote beginning, implies an unalterable predetermination or whether there is room for the conception of a personal Providence open to intercession by the individual. Here his argument is simply from the microcosm to the macrocosm, from order and foresight in man to the same attributes of God. This is perhaps the commonest argument in Stoic writers.

Ch. 28. This chapter breaks the connexion between 27 and 29. Gataker thought that it had originally followed ch. 18, as an explanation of the words 'black character'. The origin of the aphorism is a reflection such as prompted v. 11 and ix. 39. Matthew Arnold suggested that he was thinking of 'the lives of Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, Domitian . . . and wrote down for himself such a warning entry as this, significant and terrible in its abruptness.'[30]

Chs. 29–30. Assuming that the Universe is ordered, the man who is ignorant of its purpose is a stranger and a runaway, a blind beggar, a blain and a fragment. He is contrasted with the man who has all that is sufficient in himself, the poor ill-dressed and ill-fed follower of wisdom. The images of the blind man recur in ii. 13, iii. 15; of the needy man, ii. 17. 2, iii. 5; of the blain, ii. 16; and of the fragment, viii. 34.

Ch. 31. The art in which he finds refreshment is the reasonable conduct of life (iv. 2; v. 1. 3). This is the equivalent of retirement from the court and the world (iv. 3; v. 9; vi. 7 and 12).

Chs. 32–7. Reflections upon the two periods which immediately preceded his own birth, the Flavian epoch a.d. 69–96, and the Nerva-Trajan age, a.d. 96–117. In the next chapter he selects the three greatest figures, perhaps, of the early Imperial age, Augustus, Hadrian, Pius. In ii. 14 the stress was upon history as showing length of life to be unimportant, the actual present to be of pressing weight. Time in moral life is not measured by duration. Here, as in vii. 48, 58; ix. 30; x. 27, the moral is that men spend themselves on things of little worth, so that history should teach man to measure his effort by the occasion's worth, and by consequence should be able to tell what kind of effort is really worth while. Thus ch. 32 draws the former lesson, ch. 33 states the latter. Brief aphorisms, chs. 34–7, give point to these two lessons.

Matthew Arnold[31] said of ch. 32: 'Nothing is in general more gloomy and monotonous than declamations on the hollowness and transitoriness of human life and grandeur: but here, too, the great charm of Marcus Aurelius, his emotion, comes in to relieve the monotony and to break through the gloom; and even on this eternally used topic he is imaginative, fresh, and striking.' Deissman[32] summarizing his study of the papyrus rolls recovered from Egypt, says: 'In the lower stratum (of society) there is always the same bustle of so many humble souls, eating, drinking, sowing, tilling, marrying and giving in marriage.'

Perhaps the Emperor had read Lucian's Charon, with its brilliant variations on a like theme—Hermes pointing out to the old ferryman all the kingdoms of the world, and Charon's comment: 'how strange are the doings of unhappy mortals. And never a thought of Charon.' (vi. 37. 46; vii. 49; ix. 28; xii. 24.)

Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Dentatus are heroes of the early republic. Camillus delivered Rome from the Celtic invaders; Caeso is probably the brave exiled son of old Quinctius Cincinnatus, the dictator, who was called from his ploughing to deliver Rome; Volesus is an ancient patrician name, 'one of the sons of Tros' according to Juvenal. Dentatus is the ancient worthy Curius Dentatus. So Milton[33] says:

Quintius, Fabricius, Curius, Regulus—
For I esteem those names of men so poor
Who could do mighty things, and could contemn
Riches though offer'd from the hand of Kings.

The reference to those forgotten so soon as the breath is out of them may have suggested to Wordsworth,

Or he must fall, to sleep without his fame
And leave a dead unprofitable name.[34]

A like thought is: 'And some there be which have no memorial, who are perished as though they had never been.'[35]

The point of mentioning Clotho is that she is the Fate who spins the present web. Plato writes: 'the distaff rotates on the knees of Necessity . . . and seated around, at equal interval, three, each upon a throne, daughters of Necessity, in white garments, with wreaths on their heads, Lachesis, Clotho, and Atropos, the Fates, singing to the Sirens' song; Lachesis, the past: Clotho, the present: Atropos, what is to be.' While they sing, they draw out the thread of Destiny.[36]

Ch. 35. This practical reflection introduces ch. 36 which gives the reason for the transience, that ordered change is the rule of the Universe.

Chs. 37–51. With one or two exceptions, the motive for which is not quite certain, the remainder of the Book consists of consolatory reflections based upon a speculative view of the Universe as a living organism determining its changing phenomena according to necessary law. In this great system the individual vanishes almost as soon as he is created; his only good is that he can distinguish real good, that is moral good, and fulfil it. For the rest he can understand the changing whole of Reality at least so far as to see that the human terms good and evil do not apply to the Universe; in one sense it is all good because the actual is good, in another sense good and evil are merely relative terms (ch. 42).

Chs. 37–9. Practical reflections based upon the necessary brevity of the individual life. The important thing is man's judgement and man's will, not the opinions of others, not any material circumstance, not even the health of the body. They are alike indifferent to moral well-being for the reasons already given at ii. 11. 4.

Ch. 40. This is to be read with ch. 45. In these two chapters Marcus gives a summary statement of the view of the Universe which the Stoics adopted. The whole is one substance, with one informing Logos or Reason, metaphorically called soul, principle of life (v. 32; vi. 1 and 4). The Stoics used the term 'Unification (Henosis)' to express this (vi. 10; vii. 32; viii. 34). All the parts of this unity are connected by a kind of fellow-feeling, or sympathy, as all the constituent members of a living organism appear to be (vi. 38; vii. 9). Marcus nowhere gives the arguments for this hypothesis, but he illustrates it from the interrelation of the elements of physical bodies, the social instincts of animals, the connexion of the sun, the planets, and the stars (ix. 9). This term 'sympathy' was originally a term of magic, but is characteristically adopted by the school in a professedly scientific sense; it was used in a different sense by the Neoplatonists. The argument from the coincidence between changes of the astronomical bodies and mundane phenomena, for instance the relation between the moon's phases and the tides, was a favourite one for exhibiting this presumed sympathy.

Ch. 41. This quotation from Epictetus is again referred to in ix. 24. It is singularly out of place here, since the body of man is in no sense a dead body but, like the Universe in the last chapter, a living substance informed by soul.

Chs. 42–4. From the scientific point of view, derived from Heraclitus, the terms 'good' and 'evil' are inappropriate to the changing substance of the Universe (vii. 23; viii. 20 and 50). The next two chapters repeat the familiar themes of the transitory or finite nature of man's experience, and of its ordered recurrence in the annual seasons. The end of ch. 44 gets its force from its unexpectedness and is in the satirical manner rare with Marcus.

Ch. 45. This chapter is to be read with ch. 40, and the passages from other Books referred to there. Marcus is endeavouring to explain the Stoic doctrine of the unification or organic character of the Universe. He attempts this by contrasting a group of numbers in mutual exclusion, that is, in fact, exclusive units which are no series, with the reciprocal action of individual realities or intelligible unities. Galen, often elsewhere a severe critic of the Stoics or of reasoners who professed Stoicism, holds very firmly to an organic doctrine in Physiology (a kind of early Vitalism), which is in principle identical with the Stoic view of the Universe. The thought is that which Mephistopheles expresses in Faust:[37] 'He who would know and describe what is alive, seeks first to expel its spirit. Then he holds the parts in his hand but alas! the spiritual bond is wanting. Chemistry terms it encheiresis naturae, mocks itself and knows it not'; words which have often been used in argument against a merely atomic or mechanical explanation of Nature.

Ch. 46. These quotations from Heraclitus, the great Ionian nature-philosopher of the beginning of the fifth century b.c., who was a kind of prophet to the Stoics, suggest the question whether his book still survived in the second century and was known to Marcus. There was a contemporary interest in his work, as we see from the frequent quotations of him, especially in Christian writers; he serves to illustrate a point or to embellish their compositions.

The first quotation here is the kernel of the doctrine of continuous and ordered change (chs. 3, § 2, 4 and 29). The rest illustrate the moral doctrine, which was adumbrated in Heraclitus and worked out by the Stoics. The Commonwealth, Marcus says, rests upon the Logos, or common Reason; as a drunken man, who is immersed in the senses, misses the road home (iv. 29; vi. 22), so the multitude are at variance with the universal law, which is in truth always near them, and find what they meet every day to be strange and foreign to them (iv. 29). They are in the slumber of the senses, but we must not be like men who sleep,[38] although sleepers do in fact play their part in the whole (vi. 42); neither must we be like children who accept things from their parents instead of using their own reason.

Ch. 48. Compare iii. 3 and vi. 47. Here the destruction ot famous cities, like Pompeii, is included in the catalogue of things vanishing. The sudden destruction of Bura and Helice in Achaia (373 b.c.) is described by Pausanias,[39] but he was more moved by the decline of Megalopolis from its former greatness than by these sudden cataclysms. So too was the 'Roman friend of Rome's least mortal mind', Sulpicius Rufus, in the famous letter to Cicero which Byron paraphrases.[40] Pausanias moralizes also upon Nineveh and Babylon, as Lucian does in his Charon.

Both Plato and Aristotle thought there had been many destructions of men in the long past ages, by deluge, disease, or other causes, after which a handful of survivors slowly rebuilt civilization. Thus Plato in Critias dates the destruction of the fabled Atlantis at the third deluge before Deucalion, the Noah of Greek legend.

The moral for the individual is pointed by Seneca, 'the sea swallowed Helice and Buris entire: am I to be afraid for one little human frame?'[41] Marcus draws the moral for humanity, with its passage from conception to corruption, and the Middle Ages added to the sadness by making the origin of man evil, as we get it in Chaucer's 'and nat bigeten of mannes sperme unclene'.[42]

M. Casaubon's note on 'ashes or a skeleton', with an account of the urns at Newington in Kent, seems to have set Sir Tho. Browne on the study of Norfolk urns which prompted his famous Urn Burial, with its opening phrase: 'When the funeral pyre was out, and the last valediction over, men took a lasting adieu of their interred friends, little expecting the curiosity of future ages should comment upon their ashes.'

The beautiful close upon inanimate nature, here given a voice of thankfulness, contrasts remarkably with Pascal's 'le dernier acte est sanglant, quelque belle que soit le comédie en tout le reste: on jette enfin de la terre sur la tête, et en voilà pour jamais.'[43]

Ch. 49. The simile of the wise man's security goes back to Homer's comparison of a battle-line to a strong headland.[44] Virgil used it of King Latinus,[45] from whom Seneca transferred it to the wise man's constancy,[46] and Tennyson employs it in his poem Will.

The second half of the chapter is on the subject of bearing apparent misfortunes. The right attitude to sorrow and ill-fortune is summarized at the close of Book v.

Ch. 50. A reflection upon length of life to be compared with xii. 27. That the names of almost all these old men are now mere names illustrates Marcus' theme. The last words are a curious play upon a three days' child and the thrice-veteran Nestor.

Ch. 51. A quiet epilogue.


  1. iv. 3. 4. Contrast ii. 5 and iii. 5, where the emphasis is on his duty as a Roman.
  2. Sen. De Otio, iv. 1.
  3. Cf. St. Augustine, Confessions, iv. 16. 31. Cited in Donne, Sermons, vol. iv, p. 524, ed. Alford; p. 282 supra.
  4. Cic. Lg. i. 23 and 33.
  5. Heraclitus, Fr. 91 b, i 13–14 d; 92 b, 2 d.
  6. Compare ch. 4 with x. 33, especially § 4. The connexion of chs. 4 and 5 is made clear by comparison with x. 6 and 7.
  7. See: (1) v. 17. 28; viii. 15; ix. 3. 42; (2) iii. 11; iv. 3; vi. 27; vii. 22; viii. 14; ix. 27; x. 30; xi i. 12; (3) ii. 1; viii. 8, 26, 59; ix. 22; (4) vi. 50; viii. 56; ix. 11; x. 13. xi. 18 summarizes the lessons on Duty to a Neighbour.
  8. X. Mem. iv. 2. 11.
  9. St. James, Ep. 2. 8.
  10. Titus, 3. 4.
  11. Hesiod, Op. 293.
  12. Livy, xxii. 29. 8.
  13. Arist. Eth. Nic. vii. 2 and 9.
  14. Cf. ibid. vii. 9.
  15. Ephes. 5. 2.
  16. Sur le triste état des pécheurs (cited by B.-Sᵗ Hilaire, Pensées de M.-Aurèle).
  17. Pl. Leg. 776 b.
  18. Lucr. 2. 78.
  19. à Kempis, Imit. Christi, iv (iii), 28.
  20. Cic. Rep. 6. 25.
  21. Butler, Serm., Pref. 37 and xiii, 4, ed. Gladstone.
  22. Cic. Off. 1. 14.
  23. Cic. Rep. 6. 9.
  24. Sen. ad Marc. 25.
  25. Milton, Lycidas, 178.
  26. Imit. Christi, iv (iii), 15.
  27. Crossley, M. Antoninus, Book iv, ch. 23 note; Milton, Sonnet 7.
  28. Spinoza, Eth. v. 42.
  29. Democritus, Fr. 3, Diels.
  30. M. Arnold, Mixed Essays: Marcus Aurelius.
  31. M. Arnold, l.c.
  32. Deissman, Light from the East, Eng. trans. p. 292.
  33. Milton, Par. Reg. ii. 446.
  34. Wordsworth, Happy Warrior.
  35. Ecclus. 44. 9.
  36. Pl. Rep. Book x, fin.
  37. Faust, Part i, pp. 69, 70 (Stuttgart, 1866).
  38. St. Paul, 1 Thess. 5. 6.
  39. Paus. vii. 25 and 24.
  40. Childe Harold, iv. 44–5.
  41. Sen. N.Q. vi. 32, 2–8.
  42. Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, Monk's Tale, B. 3199.
  43. Pascal, Pensées, 210 (63) Br.
  44. Il. xv. 618.
  45. Aen. vii. 586.
  46. Sen. Const. Sap. 3. 5.