The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Antoninus/Commentary on Book 8


The Book opens, like Books v and xii, with a reminder that he must meet the requirements of man's true nature in the little time that is left. To do this he must recall the doctrines which guide right thought, right impulse, and right conduct. The chapters which follow are accordingly, almost all of them, concise restatements of positions reached in the earlier Books.

Towards the close are one or two chapters of a more speculative kind; otherwise the content of this Book and the next is peculiarly personal, and there are more references than usual to memories and experiences of his own life.

Ch. 1. The self-criticism and confession of a pursuit of inferior aims in the past are remarkable. One recalls the words of Dr. Johnson: 'I have now spent fifty-five years in resolving; having, from the earliest time almost that I can remember, been framing schemes of a better life. I have done nothing. The need of doing therefore is pressing, since the time of doing is short.'[1]

The passing reference to the conflict between his calling as a ruler and his desire to be a philosopher differs from what he says elsewhere, both where he speaks of men's longing for retreat, and where he says that refreshment may be found at any time from the life of a court in philosophic calm, and even more explicitly where he reminds himself 'that no other calling in life is so suited to philosophy as the one in which you now happen to be' (iv. 3; vi. 12; xi. 7).

These regrets are wrung from him by an aspiration for man's high calling. As Kant said:[2] 'the conception of the moral law robs self-love of its influence, self-conceit of its illusion.' In good men the sense of failure is proof of lofty purpose, evidence also perhaps of nervous exhaustion; it is what Milton felt when he said:[3]

My hasting days fly on with full career,
But my late spring no bud or blossom sheweth.

Though Marcus says these things of himself, we can hardly, in the case of one whose whole life was so dedicated to duty and to good, so devoted to the care of a great government, press the words 'in how many paths have you strayed and nowhere found the good life.'

Chs. 2–3. Goodness is the conduct of every day, guided by the law which man as reasonable enjoys in common with God; it is justice, self-control, fortitude, liberty. This obedience to law distinguishes the apostles of freedom, Socrates and the like, from the great conquerors who imposed their will upon the world; Pompeius Magnus, whom Romans liked to compare, for his Eastern conquests, with Alexander, and his rival Julius Caesar, in whom Stoic thought at least saw the destroyer of the Republic rather than the builder of the Empire. Their violence and power was at the expense of their country and themselves. Even Alexander,[4] of whose grand political aims Plutarch was aware, is continually censured by the moralists for his self-will and notorious personal weaknesses.

Probably Marcus' mind recurs to what he said in ch. 1 of the conflict between his own imperial calling, his duty in the theatre of war, and his desire to imitate the philosophic guides of man's life. The judgement he passes is upon two kinds of life. So Pascal contrasts the soldier with the Carthusian recluse; both monk and warrior are in perpetual servitude but 'le soldat espère toujours devenir maître et ne le devient jamais, car les capitaines et les princes mêmes sont toujours esclaves et dépendants.'[5]

Chs. 4–5. Though you cannot change men's minds, you can recover inward peace by remembering that all things are disposed by Nature and that your court will soon be like the court of your predecessors, Augustus and Antoninus; then remember in each single event what is the requirement of your true nature (ch. 1); be just in act and true in word.

Chs. 6–7. Change is Nature's law, but her awards are equal. Man, like a leaf, is part of the changing whole; but, unlike the leaf, he is conscious of his destiny. Every part of Nature is content, if it follows its nature. Man's nature is to consent to no false imagination, to shape his conduct to social ends, to welcome his portion. Nature awards to each his due, if only you regard what is assigned not in the particulars, but in the whole. For the analysis of what is allotted into matter, cause, &c., see ch. 11.

Chs. 8–9. Though your life in a palace leaves little leisure for study, you can exercise yourself in virtue. Do not find fault with your station to yourself or to others.

Ch. 10. The subject of repentance or regret takes up a suggestion in ch. 2, 'shall I repent of this?' His argument is the reverse of that where he said that to despise pleasure is to deserve praise. Here he gives a formal proof that pleasure cannot be good, else we should repent a lost opportunity for pleasure.

If we lose a benefit we repent its loss, but we do not repent the loss of a pleasure: therefore in losing a pleasure we have not lost a benefit. Pleasure then is not a benefit. But the good is a benefit, therefore pleasure is not a good.

Chs. 11–13. Chapters 11 and 13 are closely connected. The intervening chapter puts very briefly what was argued at length in v. 1, that man can take a lesson from the dumb creation.

Ch. 11. These are heads of methodical inquiry into the objects of experience, in order to acquire the right judgement which is the foundation of moral conduct. Thus they are, in the first instance, principles of intellectual inquiry, like Descartes's rules for gaining clearness and distinctness in science. In ch. 13 Marcus calls this method 'physiology'.

Although the suggested inquiry applies to all objects presented to the mind of an observer, the interest of the moralist is in good, evil, and indifferent imaginations, right and wrong thoughts. Marcus is especially alive to what we call ideo-motor activity, the effect of imagination upon impulse, the tendency of impulse to realize itself in action. This is what in ch. 13 he calls 'pathology'.

The third stage of moral science is called 'dialectic' in ch. 13. This word stands for the inward debate upon the objects which have been systematically examined in the stages of 'physiology' and 'pathology', what we may call the logic of moral science. This kind of inquiry is into what he calls here 'its function in the world and the length of its duration'.

An illustration from the Manual of Epictetus and the commentary of Simplicius may make Marcus' meaning precise and clear.

'Make it your study', says Epictetus, 'to face every difficult imagination of your mind at once with the words: "You are an imagination and not entirely what you appear to be." Next test it by your canons of thought, and first and above all by this: "Does it or does it not concern what is within the power of the will or not?" If it be concerned with what is not in the power of the will, be ready with the maxim: "This is no concern of mine."'[6] Simplicius' comment is: 'First say: "You are a mere imagination." To say this checks its power, because you realize that it may present or represent what is true, your benefit or even your pleasure; again it may be only a dreamlike fantasy. Having thus checked its immediate tendency to set up an impulse in you to give it effect in action, ask whether it refers to a spiritual good, a good of the flesh, a mere external good. Next ask whether its reference is to benefit or merely to pleasure; then whether it is practicable or impracticable. Then ask what the wise or the foolish would say to it, what God would have to say about it, and generally whether, if practicable, it is practicable for yourself or not.'[7]

Such was the careful study of moral psychology and pathology which these physicians of man's soul, these 'budge doctors of the Stoic fur' attempted. Galen's treatise on the Passions[8] (anger, appetite, sorrow, and so forth) is a similar psychological investigation by a great medical man. He divides his subject into 'guarding against passions', their 'diagnosis', their 'correction'.

Chs. 14–19. These chapters are examples, for use, of his moral method. They serve to illustrate some sides of what is described in outline in chs. 11 and 13.

Chs. 14–15. Reflection upon evil in other men and the cure for anger in ourselves. The philosopher regards his experience of evil men much as a physician his 'cases' of sickness, the master-mariner a contrary wind or foul weather. They are, each of them, natural and inevitable results of physical laws.

Ch. 16. Change of mind or purpose, upon correction, is not a sacrifice of moral freedom but an outcome of man's liberty (vi. 21).

Ch. 17. He continues the subject of evil conduct in oneself or another. If the evil is inevitable, patience and not rebellious complaint is the remedy.

Ch. 18. Fear of death is cured by remembering the general law of continuity and change in Nature.

Ch. 19. The purpose of the world process proves that man's end cannot be the gratification of pleasure.

Chs. 20–3. The trend of these chapters is to emphasize the insignificance of the individual against the background of the Whole, of which he is so small a part, but at the same time to express belief in the providential order (from which he starts in ch. 20 and to which he returns in ch. 23). The charm of the Meditations depends in part upon these frequent images of transience, expressed quite simply; the ball which

no Question makes of Ayes and Noes,
But Right or Left, as strikes the Player, goes;[9]

the bubble on the stream 'a moment there, then gone for ever';[10] the lamp which flickers and goes out when the oil is spent.

Without Providence these images suggest fatalism, with Providence they demand trust and resignation; 'as he that flings a ball to the ground or to a wall intends in that action that that ball should return back, so even now, when God does throw me down, it is the way that He hath chosen to return me to Himself'[11] (viii. 45).

Chs. 24–5. The comparison of the bath to terrene filth shows the fastidious temperament of Marcus. From it he passes to personal reminiscences of the death of relatives and acquaintances, which serve to recall himself to the certainty of his own end, with the uncertain future beyond.

He begins with Domitia Lucilla, his mother, who lost her husband Annius Verus when Marcus was a child; passes to Maximus, his philosophy teacher (i. 15; 16. 10; 17. 5), and Secunda his wife; thence to Diotimus and Epitynchanus, perhaps favourites of Hadrian. Last he mentions Hadrian and acute minds of his circle, names of which we know nothing, so that they fitly illustrate to us his sad moral of mortality and oblivion. And so he passes to his aunt, the Empress Faustina the elder, who died early in the reign of Pius.

Chs. 26–7. Joy, the joy of man's characteristic activities, is contrasted with sorrow and death. The three fundamental moral relations to self, to neighbour, and to Universal nature are outlined in two different ways.

Chs. 28–9. Once more the reminder that natural reason and right judgement can vanquish sorrow and wipe out all weak, idle, and evil fancies, so that a man may win calm and peace of soul.

Chs. 30–1. A brief exhortation to use language which rings true in addressing the Senate leads him to think of older scenes in what was still an august body, though its power was gone. There follows the most effective of his many aphorisms upon time's passage and death's equality.

In a long series of single names, the characters of Rome's golden age, the persons of the court of Augustus Caesar file before the reader, and then, to point the moral, he dwells for a moment upon the memorials with which Rome's street of tombs, the Via Appia, is crowded—records of the anxious care of families to maintain a succession of heirs, only to end with the final epitaph: The Last of his Line.

The names are familiar, some made more familiar by Shakespeare's genius: Octavianus Caesar, great-nephew of Julius, his avenger and heir, the Emperor Augustus; the Empress Livia Augusta, mother of the Emperor Tiberius and of Drusus Germanicus; his daughter, the dissolute and disgraced Julia, wife first of Marcellus, then of Agrippa; his grandsons, Julia's children, the younger Marcellus, Gaius Caesar, Lucius Caesar, destined to be heirs of Augustus, all three untimely dead; his stepsons Tiberius and Drusus; his sister Octavia, married to Mark Antony, so generous a stepmother to Cleopatra's children. There succeed Agrippa, the victor of Actium, once destined by Augustus to be Emperor; the philosopher friend of Augustus, Areius of Alexandria; Maecenas, patron of Propertius, Horace, and Virgil, his Minister of the Interior; finally kinsmen, intimates, members of the household, physicians, soothsayers. The procession passes through the writer's mind, pageant of an age that was gone:

High events as these
Strike those that make them; and their story is
No less in pity than his glory which
Brought them to be lamented.[12]

The chapter is partly corrupt in its text, so that it is not certain whether he goes on to speak of the extinction of the family of Pompeius Magnus, whose sons kept up an unequal struggle with Augustus, or of the destruction of Pompeii, in the reign of Vespasian.

Ch. 32. Life is built up, act by act, into a whole. Obstacles give opportunity for fresh acts, whether of patience or modification of an original aim. These new acts fit into the whole.

Ch. 33. This aphorism is based on what was said of Socrates (i. 16. 9). He was equally able to abstain from life's good things or to enjoy them moderately.

Ch. 34. The parable of the body and its members is here illustrated from Marcus' memory of a field of battle. Man can sever himself from the body politic, but he has the power to restore himself to union. Elsewhere Marcus reminds himself that repeated severance makes it harder to heal the breach (xi. 8), and that in all Nature only rational beings are found to forget the law of social unity (ix. 9).

Ch. 35. He goes back to what he had touched upon in ch. 32, the right treatment of obstacles in the path of chosen activity. Man, like Nature, can convert obstacles to the necessary order (ch. 50).

Ch. 36. Just as imagination exaggerates its own or another's suffering or misrepresents the actual reality, so it runs off to future anxieties when it should mirror faithfully the present experience. When isolated from 'past regret and future fears', the present shrinks to its true size and is tolerable:

What need a man forestall his date of grief
And run to meet what he would most avoid.[13]

Ch. 37. The folly of protracted mourning for the dead is illustrated by four names, only one of which is otherwise known. Panthea was a beautiful woman from Smyrna, who returned with L. Aurelius Verus after the Parthian war of a.d. 161–6. Her talents of mind and bodily charms are the subject of a brilliant study by Lucian.[14]

Ch. 38. The text here is corrupt and the meaning and origin of the saying unknown.

Ch. 39. Justice is one of the four cardinal virtues, but also, as the root of social good conduct, it enjoys a certain primacy over the others. Moreover, the Stoics taught the unity of virtue, so that the Greek word translated justice often stands for all righteousness.

What Marcus says, then, is that there is no conflict between the various virtues or aspects of right conduct, but that if pleasure be treated as an end, it must be controlled (even in the view of Epicurus) and is therefore subordinate to goodness.

Chs. 40–1. The mention of pleasure leads to this discussion of pain or sorrow, which may be defined as the sense of hindrance to life and living activity.

First he repeats his principle that pleasure and pain depend upon moral judgement. If that is sound, the man himself is secure. 'But', an objector says, 'I am not pure reason.' The answer is to accept the objection, to admit that the self is complex, but to require (even with that admission) that the judgement should keep itself free from passions which belong to what we call the lower self.

He then asks what the features of this complex self are. They depend on the fact that man has, like plants, a body which is the scene of unconscious organic change and growth; an animate self like that of animals; and thirdly what we call mind (the reason of ch. 40). Pain indicates hindrance to the unconscious or to the conscious functions, and our duty is to remove the cause of pain, if this is not to do injury to the higher elements (x. 2; vi. 14). But if the mind, or controlling self, is rightly governed, nothing can prove an obstacle to it. It can attain to entire self-contained realization, like the Universe itself, which Empedocles and Plato image as a sphere.[15]

Chs. 42–8. Aphorisms intended to illustrate and confirm what he has just said of the freedom of the enlightened understanding.

Socrates said, at his trial, that having never wronged any man intentionally, he did not deserve to injure himself by proposing a fine to escape the death penalty. Using the same idiom of popular speech and thought, Marcus says that he does not deserve to suffer sorrow since he has not made others suffer, by wronging them, and indeed any suffering which he may have he brings upon himself (ch. 42). Then, turning from sorrow to joy (ch. 26), he dwells upon the gladness of charity and content, coupled with health of soul (ch. 43); thus he may bestow the present time upon himself, realizing the folly of the pursuit of fame hereafter (ch. 44).

Whatever fate befall him, man can preserve the godhead within him, satisfied with the endowment which Nature has furnished. Nothing is of worth which implies the degradation of the self (ch. 45), nor can Nature's rule be broken, for she gives to every one of her creatures the faculty to bear what belongs to its own constitution (ch. 46).

Trouble arises not from external circumstance but from man's judgement, a judgement within his control; in the last resort, a contented death is open to a man who can no longer act with freedom (ch. 47). Death is a refuge, but the fortress of the soul is secure against all assaults, and to that fortress a man should flee for safety. He is a fool who has not learned this lesson, an unhappy man who, learning it, chooses to remain outside (ch. 48).

'He that is within the wall and rampart of that City need not fear that he deserves to be an exile: he who ceases to desire to dwell herein, ceases likewise to deserve her shelter.'[16]

Chs. 49–50. Man's judgement is upheld by making certain of the experience presented to it, and by adding nothing to it from itself. All it can add is the recognition that what befalls it is not a surprise to it, but an instance of what it has already learned.

Surprise at and complaint about events is as foolish as to find fault with the shavings in a carpenter's workshop; they are waste, but inevitable results of the material he works in. In Nature's workshop the great Artificer employs what man in his folly condemns as waste in order to create what is new and flourishing; with her handicraft, her material, her own room, Nature is satisfied.

This is the solution Marcus offers to the problem, proposed by the Epicureans[17] and other critics, of waste and imperfection in the Universe. He would have met in the like spirit of optimism any criticism of imperfection, Helmholtz's remarks[18] on the eye as an imperfect organ of sight, or Huxley's censure of the extravagant waste of life in the natural world.[19]

Ch. 51. Two distinct aphorisms. The first is a reminder of moral requirements often proposed by him before, the second an image of the self-dependence of the soul, or rather of its dependence upon a hidden source within.

The vivid words, 'they slay, they cut in pieces, they hunt down with curses', like those in vii. 68, and like Plato's description of the just man broken on the rack,[20] serve to show the power of moral liberty. In a literary sense, they are a foil to the beautiful description of the crystal water rising from the spring, a description which recalls the words addressed to the woman of Samaria: 'the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.'[21] The contrast of the spring and the cistern appears also in modern literature, e.g.:

The fountain from the which my current runs
Or else dries up; to be discarded thence!
Or keep it as a cistern for foul toads
To knot and gender in![22]

Now for this consecrated fount
Of murmuring, sparkling, living love,
What have I, shall I dare to tell?
A comfortless and hidden well.[23]

Chs. 52–3. The chapter begins with a reminiscence of the man who becomes a stranger and exile in his own land, by cutting himself off from the common reason (iv. 29). Such a man is ignorant of the City in which he resides, and of what his own reasonable nature is. To care for fame is to care for the applause of such ignorant persons. Indeed (ch. 53), it is to esteem men who, as their conduct shows, do not even satisfy themselves.

Ch. 54. The dependence of man's intelligence upon the all-pervading Universal spirit is analogous with the dependence of man's vitality upon the atmosphere which surrounds him.

Many of the early physicists of Greece regarded the air as the origin of reason in man; they even identified the soul or spirit, which is the cause of perception and movement, with the atmosphere. This view the Stoics adopted, making the spirit of life and reason an all-pervasive power or energy upon which the existence of life in creatures, and of reason in all reasonable beings, depends. In ch. 57 the illumination of reason is made analogous with the light and energy radiated through the visible Universe by the sun, its source.

Chs. 55–6. A return to the topic of ch. 50. Evil, generally, cannot be injurious to the Universe,[24] for it plays a part for good in the whole. Evil individually, viz. injury by one person of another, can only be real evil by the will of that other,[25] who has the remedy in his own judgement. Each of us can by an exercise of will obviate moral injury. Thus my neighbour's will is in one point of view important to me, because he belongs with me to one reasonable society, but in another way he is a matter of indifference to me[26] (i.e. he does not affect me), because his will lies outside my control. His conduct in this aspect is to me like the unconscious external forces of Nature, the wind or the sun. No harm can come to me from his acts, because God has given each the power to realize his own will in the moral sphere, which alone is his concern.

Ch. 57. A comparison, worked out with unusual fullness, between the activity of the sun in the natural world and the irradiation of mind in the realm of spirit.

In the Republic[27] Plato speaks of the idea of the Good which, like the sun, is the source of light to the world of understanding, the cause also of life and growth. In the Hellenistic thinkers this became a semi-mystical religious tenet; its influence may be seen for example in St. John's gospel. To the Emperor Julian the sun-god himself was the object of an enthusiastic devotion. The widespread worship of Mithra in the third century a.d. shows the influence at work in the rank and file, especially the soldiers, of the Empire.

What Marcus says here might be interpreted to mean that the sun pours his light and heat upon the world without exhausting thereby his energy, and similarly mind in the Universe, and mind in man, pours itself out upon its objects without effusion, without loss. This was in the next century a tenet of Neoplatonic philosophers.

The main purport, however, of the chapter is to illustrate from the analogy of light the direct illumination of its objects by the energy of mind. The light of the sun rests upon what at first appear to be obstacles to its path. Everyone who has observed a pencil of light shining into a dark room will recall the impression made as the ray falls upon a solid body, almost as if the light were fluid and might stream off the object. Marcus suggests that what appears to be a hindrance is an opportunity for the exercise of the light-bearing quality, as he has often said that impediments rightly used are opportunities for virtue.

In the last words he introduces a fresh thought, which, again, may have a semi-mystical suggestion. The persons who are in appearance obstacles to goodness are like solid bodies which refuse to transmit the illumination or (if that is his meaning) to reflect it. This image is employed by St. John and St. Paul. Those who do not believe in the Light walk in darkness because they refuse to receive the illumination of the Logos.[28] Everything, says St. Paul, which is shone upon becomes light,[29] and he follows this with the image, which Marcus also uses,[30] of awaking from the slumber of sin, of rising from death into the light of Christ. Is something like this what Marcus means here? He certainly elsewhere[31] employs the image of light to illustrate the doctrine of the penetration of the whole universe by one spirit of life, as the world of reason is lightened by one reasonable spirit. There, too, he closes with the remark that the path of thought is direct, like a ray of sunshine.

The question, like the question of the effusion of the light, is interesting and suggestive. We must, however, hesitate before giving a mystical interpretation to the words of a writer who is above all simple and direct in his moral teaching. He seems here rather to seek an illustration from the phenomena of light than to hint at a deeper religious significance in the beautiful effect of sunshine streaming into a dark chamber and kindling to life its secret recesses.

Ch. 58. The attitude to death in this chapter is different from that taken by Marcus elsewhere. The first alternative is indeed that of Epicurus, the second resembles rather the Pythagorean belief in the migration of the life-spirit, itself immortal, from one animate being to another. In the second case life, Marcus says, will persist, but personality will not, so that he decidedly rejects the teaching of the Pythagorean school of metempsychosis (or metensomatosis), with its cycles of existence for the individual soul.

Ch. 59. A variant on the maxim 'Bear or Forbear'. Our social duty is to instruct our fellows or to suffer them gladly.

Ch. 60. The exact meaning is difficult to discover. Marcus seems to be recurring to ch. 57, with its emphasis on the direct path of thought, like a rectilineal ray. Here he says that the directness of thought is a metaphorical expression, the movement of thought is determined by the end proposed; even when it is discursive it goes 'straight' to its goal.

As in ch. 54 and ch. 57, he is aware of the failure of terms derived from physical phenomena to do more than illustrate mental phenomena; they cannot express or explain mind.

Ch. 61. The first half of this excellent saying resembles an aphorism of Galen: 'let your door always be open, that your neighbour may at all times enter.' Galen does not, however, say that we are in turn to penetrate to our neighbour's mind; that would savour of curiosity. Marcus' words seem at first to conflict with what he elsewhere says on this subject. Still, he does sometimes say that we are to inquire into the minds of our fellows (ix. 22).

Candour is instinctive in the child, an inclination he is earliest taught to check and even to suppress. Propriety in candour requires a very delicate sensibility, which is out of place in the everyday world. Dr. Johnson[32] said: 'Very few can boast of hearts which they dare lay open to themselves, and of which, by whatever accident exposed, they do not shun a distinct and continued view; and certainly what we hide from ourselves we do not show to our friends.' Tennyson[33] urges reserve:

Be wise; not easily forgiven
Are those, who setting wide the doors that bar
The secret bridal chambers of the heart
Let in the day.


  1. Boswell's Life, a.d. 1764, aet. 55.
  2. Works, vol viii, p. 200, Rosenkranz und Schubert.
  3. Sonnet 7.
  4. For Alexander's political ideal see Tarn, Alexander the Great, Raleigh Lecture, 1933.
  5. Pensées, No. 539 Br.
  6. Epict., Man. 1.5.
  7. Paraphrase of Simplicius' Commentary, p. 43 b Heinse.
  8. Galen, De dignotione, &c. v. 1–103 K.
  9. Fitzgerald, Omar Khayyám.
  10. Burns: of the snowflake on the stream.
  11. Donne, Sermon cxi, Alford, vol. iv, p. 544.
  12. Antony and Cleopatra. The words of Octavius at the close.
  13. Milton, Comus, 362.
  14. Lucian, Portraits, 6 seq.
  15. Cf. 'Fortis, et in se ipso totus, teres atque rotundus' Hor. Sat. ii. 7. 86.
  16. Boethius, Consolatio, 1, Prose 5.
  17. 'tanta stat praedita culpa', Lucr. v. 199.
  18. Popular Lectures, Scientific, p. 197, 1873.
  19. T. H. Huxley, Evolution and Ethics, 1895.
  20. Rep. ii, 361 e.
  21. St. John, 4. 14.
  22. Shak., Othello, 4. 2. 61.
  23. Wordsworth, A Complaint; cited by Macaulay, Trevelyan, Life, &c. p. 572.
  24. iii. ii; vi. 1.
  25. vii 71; ix. 4.
  26. v. 20 and 25; vi. 32.
  27. Rep. vi. 508.
  28. St. John, 12. 35 sq.
  29. Ephes. 5. 13.
  30. vi. 31; vii. 2.
  31. xii. 30.
  32. Life of Pope, § 273, edition of Birkbeck Hill.
  33. The Gardener's Daughter.