The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Antoninus/Commentary on Book 6
The Book opens with a brief statement that the Universe is good, because it is created and informed by an entirely good will, the Reason (Logos) that shapes the material in which and through which it works (v. 32); it closes with the summary: 'No one shall prevent your living by the reason of your own nature: nothing will happen to you contrary to the Reason of universal nature.' Your will is free to realize its good purpose, your earthly dispensation also is good; there shall no evil happen to you, save of your own making. Similarly Marcus says, in what is the central chapter (ch. 30): 'Wrestle to abide such as philosophy would have made you. Reverence the gods, save mankind.' The last two words imply the third aspect of his creed; man s reason binds him to his fellow men, as both they and he are members of one whole. This duty to, and love of, neighbours, put first in vii. 55, is in this Book rarely stressed, except in sayings like: 'As Antoninus, my city and my fatherland is Rome; as a man, the Universe' (vi. 44); the City of God, so prominent in Book iv, lies in the background of his thought. The language, except in the occasional moral aphorisms, is almost entirely impersonal, the writer has reached the serene atmosphere of pantheistic calm. His words breathe a settled contentment and trust, with hardly a suggestion of that trouble and sadness which too often ruffle the surface of the Meditations.
In detail, the structure of the Book is hard to grasp; the continuity is repeatedly broken by practical reminders whose occasion is now not obvious to us; sometimes indeed it is hard to resist the conviction that they have been misplaced either originally by an editor or in transmission. This absence of continuity may be variously explained—whether by the author's own method or by accident we cannot now tell—and it becomes more noticeable in Book vii, where such intrusive sections seem to have been derived, at least many of them, from a book of commonplaces. One singular digression in the present Book (vi. 30. 2) seems deliberate; the character-study of his predecessor, the Emperor Antoninus Pius, which appears to be intended for its place in the centre of the Book, and indeed of the Meditations. The following chapters give a thread to the whole: 1, 4–5, 8–10, 15–17, 25, 36–45. 58.
Ch. 1. A summary statement of Stoic optimism about the Universe. Two original principles underlie the world process: Substance or Matter, which is passive; Reason or Logos, which is active. Using a favourite Greek image, Marcus speaks of Logos as of an artist modelling a plastic substance. The material so shaped is obedient, so that no room is left for an explanation of evil, as being the consequence of rebellious 'matter'.
Again, the principle of reason has no evil in its own nature, no ground therefore to create evil. Moreover, the divine artificer has not only a good purpose and a perfect material, but he never blunders as a human artist may blunder.
Finally, and by consequence, he does not inflict any hurt, he is free from envy and malice, does not mar man or any of his creatures for his sport. A wise and perfect craftsman, he is also a kind and benevolent spirit. As Plato had said, there is no seat for envy among the gods.
Characteristically the conclusion is left to be drawn by the reader. The Logos guides all things from their generation to their end or dissolution, therefore there can be no real evil in the whole. 'God does everything for the best and nothing will have power to injure those who love him.'
Ch. 2. The world is good, and therefore the physical hindrances in this present life, evil report or good report, even death itself, are good. They are dispensed from a source which is good and they are the field of moral action. The paradox that to die is a moment of life rests upon the belief that there is no breach in the continuity of Nature's process, and that from a moral point of view 'Death is one of Life's Offices'.
Ch. 3. A brief reminder of what is fully described at iii. 11.
Chs. 4–5. The first explicit reference in the Meditations to the vitalistic or 'holist' view of the Universe, which is central in Stoicism. Against the mechanical atomism of Epicurus the Stoics took over from the early Ionian philosophy, mediated by one side of Plato's and Aristotle's doctrine, the belief that all bodies are animated, that a spirit runs through the whole Universe, and that each part of the whole, besides participating in the world-life, contains its own proper vital principle. Galen, the physician of Marcus, although opposed philosophically to Stoicism, held to vitalism in medicine very stoutly, so that his opinion in regard to bodily functions may have fortified the faith of Marcus, just as his optimism, so largely expressed in his great book, On the use of bodily organs, no doubt also did. As to the dissolution of all generated things, Marcus here expresses the view, ultimately derived from Heraclitus, that the Universe passes back to vapour, and so in the end to the primal Fire. Alternatively, on the Epicurean view, it continually breaks up into its constituent atoms. He adds (ch. 5) that the controlling Reason understands, so that even if Atomism be the true solution, we must believe that the courses of the atoms are ruled by law.
Chs. 6–7. The first aphorism is the converse of Plato's saying: 'The greatest retribution for evil doing is to be made like to evil men.' There is irony in the word 'retribution'; it could mean retaliation or revenge, as in Solomon's 'coals of fire'. The cynic Diogenes had said: 'How may I avenge myself upon my enemy? By becoming good myself.'
The second maxim also concerns our duty to our neighbour, but is positive in character. Marcus likes to dwell on the joy of kindliness, and since beneficence is a distinctive quality of the divine nature, there is special point in the words: 'Keeping God in remembrance.'
Chs. 8–10. The main thread is resumed; in words reminiscent of what was said in ch. 1 of the divine Reason the creative freedom of the individual personality, in its own sphere, is asserted. Then the unity of the all-embracing, self-contained Universe is repeated. Finally we have the antithesis between the mechanistic and vitalistic theories of Nature, and their consequences to human happiness.
Chs. 11–12. The necessity to spiritual life of retiring from the press. The point of view is the same as in iv. 3, and he returns to it again at vii. 28. Some have thought to see in this retirement an anticipation of the Neoplatonic withdrawal into self, a kind of mystical vein in Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus. Yet the words of Marcus, at least, indicate something simpler than mystical absorption, not the turning back of the self into itself, but the everyday religious prescription that a man should refresh himself with holy doctrine.
As Guigue puts it: 'Retreat and draw back from every side (the Latin word is equivalent to the Greek of vii. 28), lest haply the whirlpool of changing things find you therein and you suffer torment', or in the words of à Kempis: 'How can he abide long in peace . . . who little or seldom collects himself within?'
The thought is illustrated here by two similes. One is that of recovering a broken rhythm, and becoming master of the melody by a return to it; that is recovering equilibrium after trouble and disturbance by a return to the balanced self. This makes a man 'content with self, in harmony with his fellows, in tune with the gods'. The second simile is the simple and happy thought which makes court life a step-dame, philosophy a natural mother. Surely those are wrong who see in this a naive reference to his own mother Domitia and to the Empress, the elder Faustina, who was in fact his own father's sister and his wife's mother.
Ch. 13. This advice to effect disillusionment from sense imaginations by the use of analysis continues what was said in iii. 11. There the object was to remove the fear of death, here it is to overcome self-indulgence and self-esteem, which may arise from misrepresentation to one's self of the springs of virtuous behaviour. The austerity of Xenocrates appears to have been represented by the Cynic philosopher Crates as a kind of pharisaism or self-righteousness, but the story does not appear elsewhere. It is remarkable that Diogenes Laertius commends Xenocrates, who was head of the Academy, just for the virtue of freedom from pride.
Chs. 14–16. These chapters illustrate the difference between real values and the objects of vulgar esteem. Thus they are related to ch. 13, which gives remedies for mistaken admiration. In ch. 14 the admiration of different classes of mankind is arranged in a scale which corresponds with the rising scale of Nature's products, the inorganic, the organic, animate existence, intelligent life. The lowest are admired and coveted by the least instructed, and so in a gradation of taste and understanding. Only moral truth and conduct deserve a wise man's esteem; he honours reasonable and social selves.
There is a touch of satire in the reference to contemporary virtuosi and to the multitude of slaves in a rich Roman's house. This vein continues in chs. 15–16. In the former he reminds himself of the relativity of the world of experience; and by the vigorous image of the passing bird illustrates the vanity of setting affection on things below, quite in the spirit of Christian asceticism. The passage may have suggested the like comparison to Guigue, who calls God a kind nurse preventing her charge from catching a passing sparrow. The sparrow typifies earthly goods, the possession of which absorbs and exhausts the spirit of man. 'Behold how the soul is taken captive by things of the body and is tormented when so taken captive, like the child. He is captivated when he sees the sparrow. And if he take the bird, he is the victim of as many chances as the sparrow itself. How secure the soul is before it is the captive of such objects. Her pleasures take hold of her, so that she can be punished when they go amiss.' In ch. 16 the idea of a scale of perfection is used to compare man's lower and less rational activities with the higher. The moral is that he should value his highest powers. This leads to some excellent remarks upon education, which is compared with the cultivation of trees and animals. Education is the instructress in true values. Self-reverence will satisfy the highest self and bring it into the harmony of fellow men and the gods. The image of ch. 11 is thus repeated; man's felicity is to be in harmony with the divine will, a harmony which Dante compares to a 'wheel whose motion nothing jars'.
Ch. 17. A corollary to ch. 16 with its image of rhythmical harmony. The activity of virtue moves on a path which transcends human understanding, and which is different from the paths of the elements. There is perhaps a thought of the fifth element, the motion of which transcends earthly movement, a hint of the opposition between mind and matter which belongs to the occasional Pythagorean or Platonic inclination of Marcus' thought.
Chs. 18–24. A set of disconnected aphorisms. Ch. 18 gives a new turn to the theme of glory. Men are greedy for the praise of posterity, yet grudge it to their contemporaries. The curious point that our predecessors did not know our fame is made by Scipio Africanus in Cicero's Dream of Scipio, but he adds that they were better men than the present and their praise therefore more worth our having.
Ch. 19. A rendering of the maxim, 'we can because we believe we can'. Epictetus has a study of the weakness which is characteristic of ages of decline, want of self-confidence. He makes it the antithesis to self-conceit. His remedy is to practise oneself in difficulties, to propose what is reasonably in one's power, to remember that progress must be gradual.
Ch. 20. A short and rather clumsy statement of what is now called 'playing the game'.
Ch. 21. A chapter in the exact spirit of Socrates, 'the life not subjected to criticism is not worth living'.
Chs. 22–3. By those 'who lose their way' Marcus means the ignorant. Probably he is alluding to Heraclitus' picture of the drunken man led home by a beardless boy, 'the man who forgets where the road leads' (iv. 46). The 'three hours' of the closing words have been interpreted to mean three hours of prayer, but a more natural sense is that three hours rightly spent are as good as three years, a favourite paradox.
Ch. 24. Whether we accept Zeno's view of death or that of Epicurus, the same fate awaits conqueror and clown. The moral to be drawn is: 'Will you then demur and think that you do not deserve to die?' Perhaps 'Alexander the Great and his stable boy' was a proverbial saying, like 'Imperious Caesar dead and turned to clay.'
In any case Marcus seems to have in mind the passage in Lucretius where Scipio, the conqueror of Carthage, 'renders his bones to the ground like the lowest of his household', a passage too which ends with a satire upon the man immersed in sleep, who strays like a drunken man:
But still uncertain, with thyself at strife,
Thou wander'st in the Labyrinth of life.
T. H. Huxley makes a curious reflection upon the atoms of our body: 'It is very possible that atoms which once formed an integral part of the busy brain of Julius Caesar may now enter into the composition of Caesar, the housedog in an English homestead.'
Ch. 25. Reflections upon the redistribution of material particles, or (as the Stoics say) of the elements and the seminal principles, leads to a reflection upon a problem already touched upon in iv. 21. 'How is there room in the Universe for all these changing incidents of life and death?' Here he draws an analogy from man's organism on the one hand, with its complication of processes at any given moment, and man's mind with its multiplicity of impressions, all physically determined, to the Universe on the other, with its infinity of simultaneous and successive changes. Similar considerations led Epictetus to ask why God should not be able to oversee all things, to be present everywhere in the Universe, as mind and consciousness are everywhere present in man's constitution.
Chs. 26–7. On Patience, Tolerance, and Forbearance. The curious illustration from spelling his name seems to mean that as a name is composed of definite elements—letters or syllables—so duty is made up of certain 'numbers'. Then he goes on to say that, if opposition arouses your wrath, you can calm yourself by repeating the alphabet, 'like to him that would say over the four and twenty letters when he was angry', as Bacon advises. Ch. 27 gives a reason why we are not to be angry with those who 'spell' their aims and objects differently from ourselves.
Marcus often recurs to this subject of Anger, and, as it seems in reading his book, with increasing charity. In xi. 18 he summarizes his position in a kind of 'Duty to my neighbour'. Elsewhere he gives these precepts to himself:
Be kind to the offender and not angry; the gods are not provoked and even bestow upon men the inferior goods which they desire, health, wealth and glory.
When tempted to be angry, examine your own shortcomings.
Cure by reasoning and, if you must reprove, do it in a corner, without display of arrogance or anger.
Never blink the fact that evil is evil, only treat all evil with charity.
Chs. 28–9. The thought of Death as rest and relief is succeeded by a reminder that while the body can still carry on, the spirit dishonours itself by surrender. This leads to the profession of the central chapter of the Book.
Ch. 30. The self-dedication, with its reminder of the temptations of his imperial station, is followed by the character sketch of him whose disciple he calls himself. The portrait converts the abstract terms 'simple, good, etc.' proposed to himself, into the exquisite detail of the conduct of his predecessor, as head of the State.
Much has been made of this passage in the endeavour to show that vi. 30 was written earlier than i. 16, with its fuller study of Antoninus Pius. But it might well be a redraft of the earlier chapter, on a scale suitable to this place.
Ch. 31. The thought of the last hour leads to this call to life from sleep and death. The last words are difficult. He seems to mean 'look at the present as clearly as you looked at the past' (vii. 2).
Chs. 32–4. The way to look at the present is to be independent of mere bodily sensations, and of all except present activities; for (33) if the activity is appropriate, the pain or pleasure it may bring are of as little moment as the labour which attends the limbs in their functions. Moreover (34), if pain and labour are not, as such, evils, neither are pleasures, as such, goods, as you may see from the pleasures of evil men.
Ch. 35. Man's peculiar art, to live by reason, is one which he shares with the gods. He should respect this, as the builder and the physician refuse to neglect their arts and are guided by them. Grote calls this a striking statement of the 'fundamental analogy, which governed the reasoning of Socrates, between the special professions and social living generally—transferring to the latter the ideas of a preconceived End, a Theory, and a regulated Practice or Art, which are observed in the former.' We are to rise, that is, above merely private ends. In the light of the development of the professions, it is remarkable to find the physician and the master builder still classed as mere artisans. Galen, on the contrary, puts medicine on a level with the liberal arts, music, painting, and sculpture. When we come down to Sir Thomas Browne, medicine is classed with law and divinity.
Ch. 36. The claim to partake in reason with the gods is at once corrected by reflection upon the relative pettiness of man's life and his earthly habitation. Here too, he says, there is much that appears to be evil and harmful. We are not, however, to regard physical evil as alien to Nature, but to see in it a necessary consequence, directly planned by or arising as a subordinate consequence from the source of all good. When we see physical evil, we are to dwell in thought upon the eternal Fountain of good; in Wordsworth's phrase 'that imperial palace whence we came'.
The reference to Mount Athos may depend upon a favourite rhetorical theme, the canal made by Xerxes during his war with Greece, or Marcus may be recalling the striking effect of grandeur made by the rugged peninsula as you sail past it. In this case he will be writing after a.d. 175–6 when he visited the East.
Ch. 37. 'There is nothing new under the sun', a familiar theme.
Chs. 38–45. Chapter 36 mediates the return to the principal theme of the Book. We are to consider the overruling Reason and to submit our wills to its providence, to think of the Universe as a single whole, where what befalls ourselves is purposeful, and what benefits us also benefits our neighbour. This group of chapters illustrates the theme variously.
Ch. 38. A fuller reference to the unity and unification of Nature. He adds here 'the bond of all things', one of the many Stoic phrases to express the belief in a necessary chain of antecedents and consequents, the necessary connexion which made the assertion of human freedom a paradox. Plutarch had criticized this view in the first century, and Alexander of Aphrodisias, the Aristotelian commentator (circa a.d. 200), attempts to destroy it in his De Fato. Here too we have the sole reference in the Meditations to the 'movement of stress', the mysterious force of 'spirit', which penetrates all things and at any given place and time holds the balance between attraction and repulsion, or contraction and expansion. Galen appears to entertain the notion as a possible explanation of the movement set up by muscular contraction.
Next Marcus refers to the 'sympathy', by which actio in distans was explained by his school. Galen says that Hippocrates held the doctrine of a sympathy in the physical organism, and to this Leibniz refers: 'Wherefore it follows that this intercommunication of things extends to any distance, however great. And consequently every body feels the effect of all that takes place in the universe, so that he who sees all might read in each what is happening everywhere, and even what has happened or will happen, observing in the present that which is far off as well in time as in place:  Marcus uses the language of this theory, when he speaks of a branch remaining in living relation with the organism of the tree., as Hippocrates said.'
Ch. 39. Thus in ch. 39, the corollary is that man is by love to his neighbour to 'fit himself into' (the word might mean 'tune himself to accord with') the scheme of things of which he is a fated member.
Ch. 40. Nature is here contrasted with Art, quite in Aristotle's manner. The living principle lives within Nature's work. Man must reverence the power which works within him and obey its will. All will then be to his mind, as the work of the Whole is to its mind.
Ch. 41. The secret of a good life is to avoid making any object which lies without our will the goal of our endeavour; to have as our end only our spiritual life. This in the Manual of Epictetus is the first of all maxims. The lower ends lead to strife with man and discontent with God.
Chs. 42–3. The truth which corrects the idea of wilful disunion at the end of the last chapter. Voluntarily or involuntarily, sleeping or waking, acting well or ill, we all work together to one end. The Reason administering the whole (here spoken of as a person) will in any case employ you to subserve the whole, as the playwright disposes his lines in the drama. The illustration of the ludicrous line in the play, which Chrysippus the Stoic used to show that evil is the complement of the good and subordinated to it, is referred to by Leibniz in his Théodicée. To this great end the Sun-god and the planets, the Rain-god, Aesculapius, god of healing, and Demeter, who gives the fruits of the earth, all contribute.
Ch. 44. The ordered character of the Universe has been assumed in chs. 42–3. The writer now pauses to ask what ground there is for our belief in Providence. He had touched on this subject at ii. 11. 2 and at vi. 1. He now asks whether the gods take thought for the individual, or whether Epicurus was right to believe in the blessed gods, but not in their care for men.
First, then, assuming they did take counsel for man, they must have counselled for man's good. Evil could not benefit them or the Universe which is their special care. Secondly, if they took no counsel for man, they certainly did for the whole. Man must welcome whatever flows from those high ends by way of consequence. Thirdly, if we suppose they took counsel for nothing, we shall be overthrowing the universal belief of mankind, and all our religious practices will become a farce. (This is an allusion to the famous argument of the Stoics from universal consent.) Rejecting this, we may still think that they had no care for man. Then, even so, I must fulfil the demands of my reasonable nature; my duty to the Empire and to the world is to serve their advantage.
This is the fullest statement of the matter in the Meditations. It is put hypothetically and merely to exhibit the difficulties of disbelief. If faith be challenged, the refuge is in the integrity of the individual and in reasonable good will.
Ch. 45. This puts briefly the consequence of the close of ch. 44. What is the advantage there spoken of? What advantages the individual advantages the whole; what benefits one man benefits the rest. This may be said to be the principle of the humanity and natural equity which was the goal of the legislation and administration of the Antonines, and out of which came the great Roman system of public and private law.
Ch. 46. The Emperor was obliged to be present at these shows of the Amphitheatre and the Circus. Already, in his youthful correspondence, he writes to Fronto of the time taken up by attendance at the theatre. Fronto warns him of the danger of seeming ungracious by using the time for business or reading. The biographer also preserves the tradition that Marcus would dictate letters during these spectacles. It is remarkable that Marcus never censures the inhumanity of the amphitheatre, as Seneca had done with great power in the Moral Letters.
Ch. 47. The artifice of grouping in threes is noticeable. Philistion was a contemporary writer of revues. The three men of science, Eudoxus, Hipparchus, Archimedes, are well chosen; they are three of the greatest Greek mathematicians and physicists. Menippus is the Cynic satirist of the third century b.c., well known to Romans through his influence upon Varro. Possibly Marcus had read Lucian's mordant dialogue Menippus; certainly the words 'long ago they are fallen' resemble the theme of much of Lucian's moralizing.
Ch. 48. So Spinoza says: 'he will be careful to speak of man's lack of self-restraint sparingly, but largely of man's virtue and power, and how it may be perfected; that so men may be moved, not by fear or abhorrence, but only by the affection of joy, to endeavour, as far as in them lies, to live by the rule of reason.'
Ch. 50. A restatement of his favourite doctrines that opposition to endeavour may be used to elicit other virtues, and that we must set out to action with the mental reservation that it may not be able to be realized.
Ch. 51. The three human ends, pleasure, fame, and virtue, recall early Greek moralizing. Marcus makes his familiar point that either of the first two aims leads to loss of that self-government which is the true end. 'Nous cherchons notre bonheur hors de nous-mêmes, et dans l'opinion des hommes que nous connaissons flatteurs, peu sincères, sans équité, pleins d'envie, de caprices et de préventions. Quelle bizarrerie!'
Ch. 55. Two favourite Socratic illustrations of the necessity for political subordination.
Ch. 58. This appears to be the moral of the main argument of the Book.
Ch. 59. The form and matter of the sentence have many parallels. The fragment itself is clearly not in place at the close of a Book. It appears to be an antidote to love of glory.
- Ignoring ch. 59, which appears to be wrongly placed.
- Leibniz, Discours de Métaphysique, 5, vol. iv, p. 430, Gerhardt.
- iii. 7; ix. 3. 1.
- Sen. Ep. 77. 19.
- Cf. vi. 53; vii. 30; viii. 29.
- iv. 15. 21; v. 30; vi. 10. 38; vii. 31.
- Laws, Book v, 728 b.
- Prov. 25. 22; St. Paul, Rom. 12. 20.
- Plu. De Cap. 88 b.
- iii. 13; v. 34; vi. 23; vii. 70; xii. 29.
- v. 9. 25, 29; vi. 14.
- vi. 1. 40; viii. 50; x. 1.
- iv. 27; ix. 39.
- Meditationes Guigonis, 218; à Kempis, Imit. Christi, i. 11. 1.
- vi. 16. 5.
- xi. 2; xii. 2.
- Guigue, l.c. 188, cf. 454–5. M. Ant. vi. 41 (and 16, § 4).
- See Dr. Binyon's lecture on Chinese Art and what he says of the rhythm of universal life, quoting the Dante passage.
- Cic. Rep. vi. 23.
- Epict. ii. 13. 1; iii. 14. 8.
- Heraclitus, 117 D., 73 B.
- iii. 7; iv. 50.
- Lucr. 3. 1024–52.
- Lucretius, transl. Dryden, cf. ch. 22 above.
- Elementary Physiology, 1902, p. 29.
- Epict. i. 14. 9.
- Compare iii. 1.
- vii. 70; ix. 11. 27.
- vii. 70; ix. 42. 4.
- xi. 13, and the beautiful passage xi. 18. 4.
- v. 28. 31; vii. 26; viii. 8; ix. 3. 2; x. 4.
- Cf. St. Paul, Eph. 5. 14.
- Greek History, Part II, ch. 68; vol. vii, p. 120, ed. 1904.
- Galen, i. 38–9.
- iii. 2; vi. 42; vii. 75.
- Juvenal, x. 173; Lucian, Rh. Praecept. 18.
- ii. 14. 2; iv. 32; vii. i. 49; xi. 1; xii, 24, and in this Book, 46–7.
- vi. 4.
- The Monadology, § 61, cf. New Essays, p. 373, in Leibniz, The Monadology, Latta (Clar. Press).
- xi. 8; cf. v. 26; ix. 9. 2.
- v. 25. 29.
- Theod. iii, § 334. He criticizes v. 8, ibid, ii, § 217.
- The gods could not lack skill, or power, or knowledge, ii. 11. 2; vi. 1.
- vi. 36; vii. 75.
- iv. 4.
- Cf. x. 8. 2.
- Dryden, Essay on Satire, ii. 66, Ker; cf. Monimus, M. Ant. ii. 15.
- Ethics, iv. App. 25. Similarly Goethe, Wilhelm Meister, ii. 6.
- iv. i; v. 20.
- La Bruyère, De L'Homme.
- vi. 45; vii. 55.
- iii. 4. 4; iv. 19; vii. 34. 62; ix. 34; x. 19; xi. 14.