Review: Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations”

by Miles Raymer


This could be nothing more than selection bias based on my media preferences, but it seems to me that Stoicism is enjoying a modest revival in American intellectual life. References to this gritty, staid philosophical tradition are plentiful in the podcasts and articles I’ve consumed in recent months. I’ve never read any of the foundational texts of Stoicism, but Marcus Aurelius‘s Meditations has occupied a spot in my reading backlog for years, so I decided to dip my brain and see what the submersion might reveal.

I can’t imagine I’m the first to say this, but it seems fitting to call Stoicism the “shit happens, and then you die” attitude toward life, although a more accurate summation would be “shit happens, you do the best you can, and then you die.” Aurelius’s take on the Stoic perspective has a lot to offer, although I wish I’d encountered it earlier in my intellectual development, where I think it could have had a more profound impact.

On the whole, I did not find Meditations to be a uniquely insightful or surprising book. The one feature that struck me as genuinely unusual, however, was its opening. The text is separated into twelve Books, and Book One presents a list of people––friends and family––who had a positive influence on Aurelius’s life. With great humility, Aurelius acknowledges how much he owes his success as a person and Roman leader to others. Especially touching are his remarks about his father:

In my father, I observed his meekness; his constancy without wavering in those things, which after a due examination and deliberation, he had determined. How free from all vanity he carried himself in matter of honour and dignity, (as they are esteemed:) his laboriousness and assiduity, his readiness to hear any man, that had aught to say tending to any common good: how generally and impartially he would give every man his due. (Book One, XIII)

Aurelius continues this tender praise for many long sentences, and goes to great lengths to celebrate himself as the product of active mentorship by many fellow humans. His is an inherently intersubjective mode, one in which inspiration for living the good life derives from friendship, family, and social obligations:

When thou wilt comfort and cheer thyself, call to mind the several gifts and virtues of them, whom thou dost daily converse with; as for example, the industry of the one; the modesty of another; the liberality of a third; of another some other thing. For nothing can so much rejoice thee, as the resemblances and parallels of several virtues, visible and eminent in the dispositions of those who live with thee. (Book Six, XLIII)

Also laudable is Aurelius’s commitment to a global mindset in which all humans are united by common cause, reason, and the laws of nature:

If to understand and to be reasonable be common unto all men, then is that reason, for which we are termed reasonable, common unto all. If reason is general, then is that reason also, which prescribeth what is to be done and what not, common unto all. If that, then law. If law, then are we fellow citizens…The world is as it were a city. For which other commonweal is it, that all men can be said to be members of? From this common city it is, that understanding, reason, and law is derived unto us. (Book Four, IV)

This is especially refreshing to encounter in such an old book, where even a brilliant author could be forgiven for remaining concerned solely with the well-being of fellow citizens or tribespeople, and never that of strangers or humanity more generally. Aurelius makes it clear that a person who embodies this way of being should be forgiving and generous, knowing that misdeeds are most often products of ignorance rather than malevolence. His concern with perspective-taking is evident, and extends justly unto his enemies and friends alike. Repeatedly, he reminds us that life is precious, characterizing death not as something to be feared, but as a neutral “cessation from the impression of the senses, the tyranny of the passions, the errors of the mind, and the servitude of the body” that looms omnipresent in every waking moment (Book Six, XXVI).

Though I find Aurelius’s ideas majestic and his prose pleasingly poetic, I definitely have some disagreements with his outlook and critiques of the work as a whole. Meditations helped me remember that I generally prefer more traditional, argumentative philosophical texts to desultory, meditative ones. It is surprisingly repetitive for such a short book, and there wasn’t much to re-energize my engagement once I’d identified the basic tenets of Aurelius’s thinking.

I’ve also got problems with some of Aurelius’s fundamental assumptions about life, insofar as I understand them. The most significant of these is my aversion to his conflation of what’s natural with what’s good or just:

Whatsoever doth happen in the world, doth happen justly, and so if thou dost well take heed, thou shalt find it. I say not only in right order by a series of inevitable consequences, but according to justice and as it were by way of equal distribution, according to the true worth of everything. (Book Four, VIII)

I am a hard determinist and free will skeptic, so I share Aurelius’s fatalistic attitude in some respects. For example, his characterization of life as resulting from a “series of inevitable consequences” seems indisputable to me. But we part ways when it comes to his notion that goodness and justice are baked into the physical mechanisms that drive the universe. On the contrary, those mechanisms appear to be profoundly amoral.

Goodness and justice are artifacts of animal cognition made concrete through the enactment of social behaviors and norms. They’re certainly not meaningless concepts, but appealing to the universe as a moral arbiter won’t get us anywhere (or, rather, it won’t get us anywhere we want to go). Additionally, the idea that the world is naturally inclined to “equal distribution, according to the true worth of everything” is not just a false assertion, but also an extremely dangerous one that has produced and continues to produce much suffering.

I admire the Stoics for their placidity in the face of life’s vicissitudes, but also worry that this quality can be harmful when taken to extremes. Aurelius recommends that people abstain “from all violent passion and evil affection, from all rashness and vanity, and from all manner of discontent” (Book Two, XI). This seems to ignore the limited yet essential role that impassioned anger and righteous indignation can play in human life and social progress. I do not think rage is a useful tool for solving the world’s problems, but it can be very useful when it comes to revealing those problems and motivating people to forcefully address them. Aurelius’s rejection of discontent is particularly troubling, for although discontent can generate a bevy of negative results, it can also push us to improve, to excel, and to reject execrable circumstances to which we have become unhealthily accustomed.

Aurelius often urges the reader to distinguish between things that are within one’s power to change and things that are not. This is an efficacious outlook that seeks to minimize stress about intractable, large-scale problems while maximizing the attention given to tractable, small-scale ones. But even within one’s reasonable scope of influence, Aurelius’s expectations for virtuous conduct often feel unrealistic:

He that is such, is he surely that doth not put off to lay hold on that which is best indeed, a very priest and minister of the gods, well acquainted and in good correspondence with him especially that is seated and placed within himself, as in a temple and sacary: to whom also he keeps and preserves himself unspotted by pleasure, undaunted by pain; free from any manner of wrong, or contumely, by himself offered unto himself: not capable of any evil from others: a wrestler of the best sort, and for the highest prize, that he may not be cast down by any passion or affection of his own; deeply dyed and drenched in righteousness, embracing and accepting with his whole heart whatsoever either happeneth or is allotted unto him. (Book Three, IV)

I understand the value of having goals to which we can merely aspire and not fully realize, and actually consider such goals to be a critical component of ethical life. But I also have to admit that something in me despairs when I read a passage like the one above; trying to be such a paragon of virtue seems utterly arduous and exhausting.

In one sense, my numerous and commonplace flaws alienate me from Aurelius’s model of goodness. But if I’m reading him right, I think Aurelius would encourage people to embrace our flaws as part of  our natures, and contextualize them as just one facet of our underlying potential for reasonable deliberation and action, whereby our common humanity is revealed and cultivated. This is a charge we can certainly undertake, and we can start by thanking this ancient man for his acute and persevering wisdom.

Rating: 7/10