What I like about Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is their immediacy. My well-thumbed Gregory Hays translation serves a spiritual function. If perplexed I can open a page, and usually find a suitable meditation to contemplate, to think through a particular problem. If nothing else, Marcus (I’ve known the emperor-philosopher long enough that we are on first name terms) is good company when I’m too tired to concentrate on a new book.
When I allow my copy to fall open it is to the following list of eight kephalaia, or points, which serve as a broad announcement of all Marcus’ themes, and function as a reminder of the essential core of Stoicism:
To be angry at something means you’ve forgotten:
- That everything that happens is natural.
- That the responsibility is theirs, not yours.
- And further … that whatever happens has always happened, and always will, and is happening at this very moment, everywhere. Just like this.
- What links one human being to all humans: not blood, or birth, but mind [intellect].
- That an individual’s mind is God and of God.
- That nothing belongs to anyone. Children, body, life itself-all of them come from that same source.
- That it’s all how you choose to see things.
- That the present is all we have to live in. Or to lose.
In his book on Aurelius, Pierre Hadot connects these to the fundamental dogmas of Stoicism:
From the absolute primary principle according to which the only good is moral good and the only evil is moral evil, it follows that neither pleasure nor pain are evils; that the only thing shameful is moral evil; that faults committed against us cannot touch us; that he who commits a fault hurts only himself; and that the fault cannot be found elsewhere than within oneself. It further follows that I can suffer no harm from the actions of anyone else.
I recall thinking that the Meditations seemed as much Marcus Aurelius desperately trying to persuade himself not to be afraid of death as anything else. For me there was an overwhelming sense in them of a terror of mortality, and an attempt to use reason to combat that terror.
He and Seneca both had powerful and persuasive thoughts, though of course it must be easier to be a stoic when you’re an emperor or wealthy senator. It’s easy to see why a creed based on accepting what you had appealed more to those who had a great deal.
A lot of the power of Meditations lies in Marcus’ sense of mortality. It always seems to me that he is writing Stoic philosophy as personal inscription, as though writing it will make it true, or true to him anyway. Similar to Foucault’s hypomnemata.
Seneca always seems far more assured.
I think all those points are fair, though I can’t comment on Foucault not having read him.
Haven’t come across Foucault’s hypomnemata before, will have to look into that as relates to memory interests. And will definitely try to get to the copy of Meditations I have on the shelf at some point soon.
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