The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Antoninus/Commentary on Book 9

BOOK IX

The practice of dividing longer sections by brief practical aphorisms is continued in this Book. In spite of some repetition, the general impression made is of continuous composition, and the interest, as in the last Book, is heightened at many places by more personal and less highly generalized sentiments than are usual in the central Books. Here and there Marcus appears to have been prompted to write by an experience of the moment; more than once he expresses a struggle with a sense of disappointment in himself and his fellows, the language reflecting trouble, anxiety, and even personal loss.[1]

Both the inquiry into the right use and advantage of intercession (ch. 40) and the quotation from a letter of Epicurus (ch. 41) have this note of immediate personal feeling. Remarkable too is the repeated return to the subject of criticism or dislike of himself.[2]

Some parts of the Book appear to belong to an earlier period of his life than the contemporary events mentioned in Book viii. Thus the reference to the Plague (ch. 2), which first broke out in Italy on the return of Lucius Aurelius Verus from the Parthian campaign, would be naturally dated to the years a.d. 166–8, and in the next chapter Marcus writes as though expecting the birth of a child. His youngest child, Vibia Aurelia, was born in a.d. 166. If the whole Book belongs together and is relatively early in composition, we may see an explanation of a tone and feeling nearer to the living moment than he is wont to express when composing in riper age and philosophic calm.

Ch. 1. The object of this carefully written section is to give a religious foundation to the moral system of Stoicism. Injustice, untruth, indulgence in pleasure, rebellion in pain, care for the external and indifferent goods of life—these are all, in the end, offences against the will of the supreme Divine principle, attempts to resist the law of Reason and Universal Nature. Passions like these can only be the outcome of failure to obey the Divine purpose, to believe in and trust the perfect ordinance of Providence. In much the same spirit Plato in the Laws,[3] his last work, insists that the ordinances of the Ideal City must rest upon a reasoned conviction in its citizens that God exists, and that he governs for good ends. Plato, however, ordained punishment for the persistent unbeliever; there is no trace in Marcus, here or elsewhere, of the least leaning to the persecution of opinion. We learn that he founded a chair at Athens for the Epicurean philosophy, as well as for three rival schools.[4] The language of paragraph 5 is of interest because the 'natural powers', issuing from Nature's creative impulse and propagating themselves in the world of plants and animals and men, belong to a theory of creation which is seldom elsewhere mentioned in the Meditations.[5] The point of view is deistic rather than pantheistic, a side of Stoical philosophy (or of general contemporary thought) which left its trace, at any rate linguistically, upon the Neoplatonic writers of a later date, with their doctrine of 'powers' flowing into the visible and created world from the eternal realm of ideas.

These 'natural powers' play a part in Galen's physiology,[6] and his teaching about them, which went back to Hippocrates, is the original of the 'dormitive' and other faculties with which Molière makes merry.

Ch. 2. Marcus begins with the image of life as a banquet, an image employed with such force by Lucretius. In his usual manner he slightly alters the maxim of worldly writers, that the guest should leave life's table after enjoying its good things, or if dissatisfied should rise at once and go. Happier, Marcus says, to depart without tasting the allurements of evil; next best to go like a disillusioned diner.

From this he turns to another allegory, drawn from the pestilence which devastated the Empire. Far worse, far more to be avoided, is the plague which destroys the understanding. Some historians have supposed that this pestilence, which the legions brought back as a punishment for the sack of Ctesiphon, in Mesopotamia, was a principal cause of the decline of the Empire. It was still prevalent in the reign of Commodus,[7] and broke out again later. The last words of Marcus,[8] by one account, were: 'Why weep for me and not think rather of the pestilence and the general mortality?'

Ch. 3. Here Marcus returns to a favourite remedy in the prospect of death. Death is natural, as natural as birth and adolescence, and all life's seasons from sowing time to harvest. Death then is to be welcomed. Later he illustrates his meaning from the steps his own life had traced.[9] Each change, however dreaded, had proved natural when it was completed. The chapter ends upon a different note from that of v. 10. There he expresses faith in the disposer of his destiny and his confidence to be able to live in agreement with the god within; here he seems 'in love with easeful death', invokes him as a deliverer from earthly circumstance and evil company. This is a less mature attitude of mind than the other.

The passage about the child's birth is referred to by Bishop Butler, who says, in his treatment of the analogy between birth and death: 'death may immediately, in the natural course of things, put us into a higher and more enlarged state of life, as our birth does.' He continues: 'this according to Strabo was the opinion of the Brachmans, to which opinion perhaps Antoninus may allude in these words, "as you are now waiting for the unborn child . . .".'[10]

Seneca uses this analogy as pointing to a life beyond the grave, and Marcus here speaks of the living seed, in an image, falling to the ground from the pod. Death is once more spoken of in x. 36 as a delivery from discordant influence, but with a feeling which accords better with Marcus' faith in the bond of kind. The present chapter may have suggested the lines:

To die
Is to begin to live. It is to end
An old, stale, weary work and to commence
A newer and a better. Tis to leave
Deceitful knaves for the society
Of gods and goodness.[11]

There may also be an echo of Marcus in Montaigne's words: 'your death is a part of the order of the universe, 'tis a part of the life of the world',[12] in an essay based principally upon Lucretius for the one part and Seneca for the other.

Ch. 4. The writer turns, according to his wont, to practical maxims, preserving the connexion by repeating in this chapter the form of the opening of ch. 1.

The wrongdoer not only sins but he wrongs himself; he not only endeavours to disturb the harmony of the Universe, he also disturbs his own. This paradox that it hurts a man more to do wrong than to suffer wrong was taught by Socrates, who said that punishment benefits the criminal far more than to escape the consequences of crime.

Ch. 5. There are wrongs of omission as well as of commission. This truth appears now to be a truism; it is the counterpart in ancient Ethics to the golden rule of Christian morality: 'whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them.'

Ch. 6. A restatement of vii. 54. There are two points: first, that present action is our only concern; secondly, that rectitude depends upon clear and distinct apprehension of the object pursued, reference to social good, and contentment with circumstance.

By 'a cause without' Marcus means what is beyond one's own control, what he often calls, in the language of his school, 'the indifferent', objects such as pleasure and pain, good and ill repute.

Ch. 7. Again a restatement, of what he said in vii. 29, but with the addition of stress upon self-government. By saying that the self is to be in its own control he touches upon the problem that is suggested in ch. 4, the division in the man himself, the imperfect unity which contrasts with his reasonable constitution. This was the subject of part of vii. 55, where he said that the reasonable self is not to be inferior to, not to give in to bodily feelings. In the earlier Books the problem is met by the suggested relation of the man to the divine within him, the god in the breast. In the central Books the answer is that man's reason must be consistent with his natural constitution; in that way he may establish also his relations with fellow men and with God.

Chs. 8–9. Government of self, and the subordination of the body to the soul, and of the lower in man to the higher, are related in vii. 54–5 to the government of the whole, with its subordination and co-ordination of its parts and members.

Here Marcus gives a more complete survey of an optimistic view of the Universe, especially of his belief that moral life and social concord rest upon and express the systematic unity which Nature manifests throughout. In ch. 8 he compares the one spirit which runs through and orders both irrational and reasonable beings with the common light by which we see and the atmosphere which we respire.

In ch. 9 he begins from the instances of unity in the physical elements. The natural science of his school held a vague anticipation of the theory of gravitation, at least in the elements Earth and Water: 'every pebble attracts every other pebble, though truly with a force almost infinitesimal.'[13] With this the Stoics, like most Greek physicists, held the false notion of the natural levitation of Air and Fire. Marcus here relates this to a primitive notion that Air and Fire are fluids, and obey similar laws to those of water. The movement to unification is only prevented by a force which was called 'tension'.

This uniting tendency becomes more obvious, as we mount the scale of Nature, in the social instincts of animals. There followed in the early history of man tendencies to union and society which even caused cessation of wars.

Highest of all is the cosmic sympathy which unites the widely sundered starry heavens;

Connexion exquisite of distant worlds,
Distinguished link in Being's endless chain;[14]

or to quote Sir Oliver Lodge: 'Things which appear discontinuous, like stars, are ultimately connected or united by something which is by no means obvious to the senses, and has to be inferred.'[15]

Finally (ch. 9. 3) Marcus observes that only reasonable creatures have forgotten this urgent law of common sympathy; but he continues, conforming his language to the teaching of Heraclitus, man cannot escape the principle of unity which controls the whole, Nature overtakes and masters him.[16]

This view of evolution is interesting because there is no trace, such as we find in some Stoical writers, of the age of gold. Marcus recognizes in the animal world a tendency to permanency of union in the social insects, in gregarious animals and in birds, but in man both unity and strife. He does not take the Epicurean view of war of all against all, but an intermediate position. With this early stage of society he appears then to contrast a later, where men have degenerated—'see then what now is coming to pass'; thus men, though reasonably endowed, have deserted the path that Nature marked out for them.

Ch. 10. The writer's mind moves from reflection upon the gradual scale of Nature to consider the fruit of that system: in man, the good fellowship which is only made possible by union and subordination to common ends; in Nature herself, the ordered Whole. The simile of fruit reminds one of the words: 'as the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; so neither can ye, except ye abide in me.'[17]

Chs. 11–16. A sequence of maxims for practice. The first conveys a gentle irony. The goods men ask of the gods the gods bestow; that is, external goods, which to the wise are indifferent. Marcus makes a similar suggestion in ch. 27 in regard to men's prayers.

Ch. 12. A warning against self-pity and self-regard, two weaknesses which are often induced by hard work and devotion to unselfish ends.

The words probably contain a punning reference to the labours of Hercules, a hero who is transformed by Epictetus into a model of Stoic endeavour. We may illustrate this Stoic interpretation from Browning's idealization of Hercules in Balaustion's Adventure.

Chs. 13–15. The favourite themes that man can preserve himself in any conditions of life by integrity of moral judgement (ch. 13), and that 'brute' experience stands silent, powerless in itself without the door of the soul (ch. 15), are evidently connected, the thread being broken by ch. 14, which repeats what has been so often said about the monotony of life.

Ch. 16. 'The whole praise of virtue consists in action', says Cicero in his Offices, and to Marcus the very kernel of his creed is that action and not sentiment is man's duty; he must, in Goethe's phrase, fulfil 'the demands of the day'.[18]

Bishop Butler[19] cites this chapter to illustrate his theme that the object of the practical discerning power within us lies in 'actions, comprehending under that name active or practical principles', and adds that 'we never, in the moral way, applaud or blame either ourselves or others for what we enjoy or suffer, or for the impressions made upon us, which we consider as altogether out of our power, but only for what we do.' Marcus makes a tacit reply to the refined sentimentalism (or sensuality, as his opponents thought) of Epicurus.

Ch. 17. Marcus here appears to be combating a fatalism which may be the other side of resignation. One is tempted to hazard the objection that man is no ball or stone, nor a lamp to be lit and again put out (cf. viii. 20).

Chs. 18–21. Chapters 18 and 20 belong together, and chs. 19 and 21 are clearly connected. The tenderness to opinion, which Marcus expresses in ch. 18, as in chs. 27 and 34, is perhaps pardonable if these are private reflections, intended primarily for himself. His sensitiveness, which is remarked by his biographer, tallies with the delicate regard for others which is a striking trait of the Meditations, and which is expressed in ch. 20 (cf. vii. 29; ix. 38).

Ch. 19. To fortify himself against fear of death Marcus, here and in ch. 21, employs a reflection which had found its way, naturally enough, into the literature of Consolation. We die daily, since our bodily frames, like every other part of the world of becoming, are continually being built up and decaying.

The thought is derived ultimately from Heraclitus (circa 500 b.c.), the first who framed the law of serial change; it is often found combined with another, also derived from Heraclitus, that waking and sleeping are images of life and death: 'the living and the dead, the sleeper and the watcher, the young and the old arc the same.'[20] Heraclitus thus expresses enigmatically the rhythm of the life process, which underlies its continuity, a rhythm also illustrated by the psychological truth, with which ch. 21 opens, that effort and impulse die with the attainment of their object.

Popular thought added a further consideration, rarely touched upon by the philosophers, that life's rhythm is made intelligible by the persistence of the individual life through the continuous changes. This is a thought implied by Marcus in x. 7. 3. Plutarch and Seneca use this to console the mourner, that he may be comforted in the presence of death by the belief that there is an awakening to follow, as we awake from our nightly slumber.

St. Augustine reflected upon this, with special reference to the pre-existence of the individual spirit. As he dwells upon this problem he remarks, very much in the manner of Marcus: 'And lo! my infancy died long since, and I am alive.' . . . 'Declare to me, your suppliant, did my infancy succeed to some age of mine that is also dead?'[21]

Bishop Butler appears to have had this passage in mind when he wrote: 'We have passed undestroyed through those many and great resolutions of matter, so peculiarly appropriated to us ourselves; why should we imagine death will be so fatal to us?'[22]

Marcus does not draw any such conclusion. True to his sober and patient thinking, he gives merely the older view of pantheistic thought: we are to realize that death is an example of the universal law of continuity and change, of generation and dissolution. That being so, our duty is to accept the rule, without question, to welcome it as an aspect of the eternal order; we must at last fall into earth's lap, like the ripe olive (iv. 48; v. 4).

After stating the general law he illustrates it from his own life. His father's early death put him under the guardianship of his grandfather, Annius Verus, the prefect of the City of Rome.[23] Then he lived with his mother Domitia Lucilla, under the direction of her grandfather, Catilius Severus.[24] Next, by Hadrian's enactment, he was adopted by Titus Aurelius Antoninus,[25] and on the latter's accession shortly became Caesar, or heir apparent, and married his cousin, the younger Faustina.

His apprehensions about these changes were false; there was nothing to fear; neither then is the approaching change, Death itself, to be feared.

Ch. 20. This is the same reflection as we met in vii. 29, and shall meet again in ix. 38.

Chs. 22–3. After restating the triple relation of the self to God, to a neighbour, and to his own constitution (the main subject of Book ii, with a stress here upon the subordination and co-ordination involved), he passes to the recognition of his own role in the imperial commonwealth, which is the counterpart of his place as a member of the Eternal city. Loyalty to those relations resembles the duty of a citizen of a State to observe its ordinances. The conception of his own position as head of the State is faithful to the ideal of the Roman Stoics which he sketched in i. 14.

Ch. 24. A group of images suggested by a satirical sense of the aimlessness and pettiness of human endeavour. Marcus used the simile of children at play in v. 33, to pass from that to the transitory nature of human life. Here his thought moves from the quarrels of children over their dolls to the grim picture of spirits bearing about dead bodies (iv. 41), and so to the imagination of Homer's underworld of shadowy wraiths, a realm as insubstantial as the present.

Ch. 25. This is a brief reminder of what he set out fully in iii. 11. Similar notes will be found at iv. 21 end; vi. 3; vii. 29; viii. 11; xii. 8, 10, 18, and 29. The principal omission here is that of relation (xii. 10), viz. the reference of an object to its end.

Ch. 26. An expression of regret for mistaken efforts and anxieties, given in greater detail in viii. 1.

Ch. 27. The reflection in ch. 18 that we may ignore the opinions of others, when we see their manner of living, here takes an unexpected turn. We are to be charitable to them, although their lives and aims are unworthy, and we shall be encouraged in this by observing that the gods are good to them, assisting them by dreams and augury.

In view of his own attitude to prayer in ch. 40, that it should be a request for help to be right-minded, and his usual teaching that man's true ends can be secured by sound understanding and sincere effort, without the special help which weakness tempts man to ask of God, we cannot but detect a certain irony in his words. Yet he himself thanks the gods for their revealed help for bodily ailments (i. 17. 9), so that he shared the common conviction of his time that God sometimes speaks to men, and not to good men only, in visions and dreams.

His attitude closely resembles that of Socrates, who told his followers to use their understanding for the purpose to which it was given by God, and only where there was genuine obscurity to consult the art of prophecy. So Socrates himself believed in the Divine voice vouchsafed to him from childhood, and expressly says in Plato's Apology that his mission to mankind was 'enjoined by signs and dreams and in every way that Divine dispensation enjoins things on men'.[26]

We are not then to take Marcus to task for credulity nor to swallow the amusing fables that Lucian relates of him, but to respect his simple piety.

Two extracts well illustrate what he says: 'the universal attention which has been paid to dreams in all ages proves that the superstition is natural, and I have heard too many well-attested facts . . . not to believe that impressions are sometimes made in this manner and forewarnings communicated, which cannot be explained by material philosophy',[27] and this from Dr. Johnson: 'by appearance, impulses, dreams or in any other manner agreeable to Thy government.'[28]

Ch. 28. The return from religious reflection to his philosophic creed is characteristic. Marcus makes three points: the regularity of the Universe, a point common to Stoics and Epicureans; the alternative Stoical view that either what individually befalls each is determined at every moment by Nature or that the order of things flows regularly and inevitably upon a divine primal impulse; finally, the opposition between Divine purpose, whether providence or predestination, and the atomism and chance of the Epicureans. If we accept the last view, the soul, as Epicurus himself taught, can still avoid, by its own purpose, subjection to Chance.

There follow reflections on the transitory, summed up in the first words of ch. 29.

Ch. 29. In presence of the vast stream of cosmic process, your part is present duty, without concern for recognition. Plato's dream of a Utopia cannot become real, for who can change men's hearts? Be content with a few steps forward. How small are men's political views, how vain their theories of life! The great conquerors, like Alexander, were only great if they looked to Nature's lead; otherwise they were mere tragic actors on the boards. May I not be led away by my high station to pomp and vanity.

Nowhere else has the Emperor put so well and so concisely his disdain of theories, his recognition of true political idealism. Here is no philosophic pedantry, only the frank recognition of the littleness even of the best endeavour.

Ch. 30. The temptation to vanity may be corrected by looking down in imagination, as Marcus must often have looked down from his place in the amphitheatre, upon the countless pettiness of men's acts and thoughts (vii. 48). Even the Roman Empire is bounded in extent, and many nations and climes know nothing of its ruler's name and deeds; if they do, they will soon forget them.

Chs. 31–3. Three chapters teaching calm amid circumstance; the first is derived from the transitory fate of human endeavour, from the duty of just dealing, and from the need to express Nature's common law in everyday life. The second enforces this lesson by a fresh reminder of Time's brevity and Change's rapidity; the third repeats the old thought that all finite time, long or short, is equal when compared with infinite time (ii. 14).

Ch. 34. What is the worth of those who censure and hate, if you look through the outward covering to the petty selves within? (chs. 18, 27).

Chs. 35–7. These three chapters are cither a dialogue with the lower self, or with an imaginary interlocutor. The word 'loss', with which they begin, suggests that Marcus is here correcting the tendency in the hour of bereavement to rebel against what his creed holds to be both inevitable and good. He who rebels ascribes suffering to the cruelty or weakness of the gods.

Marcus lost a child, called by his own name, Annius Verus, in a.d. 169. The skill of Galen could not cure him of a growth in the ear.[29] The subject is handled exquisitely by Walter Pater.[30]

Chapter 36 seems also to have been prompted by loss. The method of analysis beginning with the dead body and ending with the breath of life is used as a remedy in the presence of mortality.

Chapter 37 is difficult to arrange. Perhaps the first sentence is spoken by the sufferer of ch. 35, the rest is the reply by way of comfort and healing. Marcus recalls, in his own way, the familiar consolatory theme, the unimportance of length of days when weighed with eternity (ch. 33). Then he reminds himself of the duty of reverence to the disposer of his days, in the spirit of the Psalmist: 'Why are thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? Hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance.'[31]

Macaulay, who had felt and expressed repugnance with Stoicism, later uses exactly Stoical terms when he says (aet. 58): 'To be angry is unworthy not merely of a good man but of a rational being. Yet I see instances enough of such irritability to fear that I may be guilty of it. But I will take care. I have thought several times of late that the last scene of the play was approaching. I should wish to act it simply, but with fortitude and gentleness united.'[32] The 'last scene' suggests that he had been reading xii. 36.

Ch. 38. An old thought, but with a charitable reminder added. With the lapse of years and the growth of his mind, this consideration for others grows in the writer.

Chs. 39–40. Two chapters on man's relation to God and the Universe, with a reflection upon Prayer. First there is the opposition between the organic view of Nature and the atomistic, followed by the remarkable apostrophe to the self, as it appears, not to sink as low or lower than the beasts which perish. Marcus is thinking of the inevitable result of the view that man is little else than a brute led by his senses.

The meaning of the chapter on Prayer is that the good man is to supplicate for a right mind to external events, especially to sorrow and self-indulgence, but not to expect that prayer can alter events.[33]

The last words are an anticipation of what is often taught by religious writers to-day; we are to try Prayer and to test its efficacy by results. This is the converse of the older doctrine that if Prayer be not heard, it is because the petitioner lacks faith.

Ch. 41. This fragment, which seems to be from a letter of Epicurus, is not elsewhere preserved. There are several parallels in his remains.[34] Marcus follows the example of Seneca in his readiness to take what is good from an opponent. He was, no doubt, impressed by the calm benignity of Epicurus in the presence of acute pain and the shadow of death.

Ch. 42. A collection of aphorisms upon the fact that the world contains evil men, upon the possible reason for this, and the right attitude to be adopted to the wrong-doer.

Mr. Haines has suggested[35] that the emphasis here upon ingratitude and treason points to a particular experience. In or about a.d. 175 Avidius Cassius,[36] governor of Syria, in whom the Emperor had reposed great trust, revolted and was proclaimed Emperor. Marcus, who was engaged in serious warfare on the Danube frontier, took vigorous steps and the traitor met with an ignominious end. The account in the epitome of Dio Cassius certainly has parallels, in the speeches put into the mouth of Marcus, to what the Emperor writes in this chapter. Probably, however, the historian wrote up his rhetoric on the basis of Marcus' writings or the general tradition of his character and conduct. The whole passage here, like the Meditations generally, seems to rise clear of any particular experience, and to originate in generalization upon experiences often enough, no doubt, repeated in his life.

To the six reflections of the chapter we may add from elsewhere that:

every purpose should be with reservation (iv. 1; vi. 50; viii. 41);
we are all members of one fellowship (ii. 1; xi. 18. 1);
life is short and both your enemy and yourself will soon be in the grave, where all things are forgotten (viii. 21).

FootnotesEdit

  1. Chs. 2, 3, 21, 29–30, 35, 37, and perhaps 42.
  2. Chs. 18, 27, and 34.
  3. Pl., Leg. Bk. x, p. 884 sq.
  4. Philostratus, Vit. Soph. ii. 15. 2.
  5. iv. 14.
  6. See, for instance, Galen's Natural Faculties, translated by Dr. Brock, in the Loeb series.
  7. Herodian, i. 12. 1–2. It is mentioned in an inscription of Commodus' reign.
  8. Hist. Aug. iv. 28.
  9. ix. 21.
  10. Analogy, i. 1.
  11. Beaumont and Fletcher, The Triumph of Honour.
  12. Montaigne, Essais, i. 19 (Cotton), cf. Lucr. iii. 938.
  13. O. Lodge, Modern Scientific Ideas.
  14. Young, Night Thoughts, Bk. i.
  15. O. Lodge, l.c., p. 13.
  16. Heraclitus. Fr. 91 B., 114 D.
  17. St. John, 15. 4.
  18. 'die Forderung des Tages', Goethe, Betrachtungen, i. 42 (ii), p. 167, Weimar edn.
  19. Butler's Dissertation ii, § 4, vol. i, p. 329, Gladstone.
  20. Heraclitus, Fr. 78 B., 83 D., adopted by Euripides, whom Aristophanes ridicules for it.
  21. St. Augustine, Confessions, i. 9; cf. De Civitai Dei, x. 30, xi. 23.
  22. Butler, Analogy, i. x. 15.
  23. M. Ant. i. 1 and 2.
  24. Id. i. 3, 4, 17. 7.
  25. Id. i. 16; vi. 30. 2.
  26. Pl. Apol. 33 c, cf. Crito, 44 a; X. Mem. i. 1.9, Anab. iii. 1. 11.
  27. Southey, Life of Wesley, i. 359.
  28. Johnsonian Misc., G. B. Hill, p. 11.
  29. Hist. Aug. iv. 21. 3.
  30. Marius the Epicurean, ch. xviii, vol. ii, p. 61.
  31. Psalms, 42. 5.
  32. Trevelyan, Life and Letters, &c. p. 681.
  33. St. Luke, 11. 13; 1 John, 5. 14, where the writer passes on, like Marcus, to the erring brother.
  34. Usener, Epicurea, pp. 139, 143, 144.
  35. In his edition of the Meditations in the Loeb series.
  36. Dio Cassius, Epitome, 71. 27. 3.