Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius

Some may wonder how a Roman Emperor belongs here?  Some feel uncomfortable with Faith as the foundation of NonViolent Action.  Many consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious.”

The Good  Emperor Marcus Aurelius certainly had a sense of ‘order’ in the universe.  Perhaps this excerpt will explain why and some may find a kindred spirit and some good common sense from this ancient Roman.

“Concentrate every minute like a Roman — like a man — on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice…

The spot where a person decides to station himself, or wherever his commanding officer stations him — well, I think that’s where he ought to take his stand…

If we wish to make change happen, personal action and sacrifice is essential.  We will hopefully be ready to act when we have a strong sense of duty. We have quoted liberally below from the books in the following bibliography.

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus who lived from 121 AD to 180 AD was the last of the “good emperors” who governed Rome at its height.   He was Emperor from 161 AD to his natural death. The “Meditations” were personal notes to himself, not meant for general instructions, and the ‘you’ he refers to is himself.   As you read some of his personal thoughts below; he is attempting to answer many questions we also may be asking.

Why are we here?  How should we live our lives? How can we ensure we do what is right? How can we protect ourselves against the stresses and pressures of daily life.  How should we deal with pain and misfortune?

Long identified as a follower of stoicism, in his “Meditations”, Marcus shows a great mixture of common sense, especially in dealing with those we find ‘annoying’ — and great confidence in the “Logos”.

The term Logos has a semantic range so broad as to be almost untranslatable.  At a basic level it designates rational, connected thought — whether envisioned as a characteristic (rationality, the ability to reason) or as the product of that characteristic (an intelligible utterance or a connected discourse).

Logos operates both in individuals and in the universe as a whole.  In individuals it is the faculty of reason.  On a cosmic level it is the rational principle that governs the organization of the universe.

In this sense it is synonymous with nature, “Providence”, or “God.” (When the author of John’s Gospel tells us that “the Word” — Logos — was with God and is to be identified with God, he is borrowing from Stoic terminology).

All events are determined by the Logos, and follow in an unbreakable chain of cause and effect.  Stoicism is thus from the outset a deterministic system that appears to leave no room for human free will or moral responsibility.  In reality the Stoics were reluctant to accept such an arrangement, and attempted to get around the difficulty by defining free will as a voluntary accommodation to what is in any case inevitable….

But the Logos is not simply an impersonal power that governs and directs the world.  It is an actual substance that pervades that world, not in a metaphorical sense but in a form as concrete as oxygen or carbon.

Marcus develops and mixes Stoicism with other philosophies  and does not identify himself as a Stoic.  But we may all identify well with his ‘three disciplines‘:

ONE – Perception: This requires that we maintain absolute objectivity of thought that we see things dispassionately for what they are.  We must learn to separate the mental impression we have of external events (phantasia), from the mental perception we then develop (hypolepsis).

For example, my impression that my house has just burned down is simply that — a report of an external event conveyed to me by my senses.  By contrast, my perception that my house has burned down and I am ruined and have suffered a terrible tragedy is by no means the only possible interpretation, and I am not obliged to except it.  I may be a good deal better off if I refuse to do so. (Witness the many anecdotes of the wealthy, business leaders, sports heroes, who started from tragedy.)

TWO – Action: Governs our approach to things that are in our control, those things that we do.  If we act wrongly, then we have done serious harm to ourselves.

It concerns our relationship with other people. All human beings possess not only a share of the Logos but also the ability to use it (which distinguishes us from animals).  To Marcus the Logos is a city and humans are its inhabitants and we have duties because of our citizenship.  We must make proper use of the Logos we have been allotted.

We are made, not for ourselves, but for others, and our nature is fundamentally unselfish.  In our relationships with others we must work for the collective good, while treating them justly and fairly as individuals.

THREE – Will: A counterpart to the discipline of action.  Governs our approach to things that are not within our control, those that we have done to us (by others or nature). Things outside our control have no ability to harm us.  Acts of wrongdoing by a human agent (robbery, torture…) harm the agent, not us.  These acts can only harm us if we choose to see them as harmful.

Excerpts from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius:

Book Two, 1, 5: When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.  But I have seen the beauty or good and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own… and possessing a share of the divine.  And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness.  Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him.  We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes… To obstruct each other is unnatural.  To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.

Concentrate every minute like a Roman — like a man — on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice…

Book Three, 7,10:  Never regard something as doing you good if it makes you betray a trust, or lose your sense of shame, or makes you show hatred, suspicion, ill will, or hypocrisy….

Forget everything else.  Keep hold of this alone and remember it.  Each of us lives only now, this brief instant.  The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see [the future]….

Book Four, 3: …What’s there to complain about?  People’s misbehavior?  But take into consideration:

that rational beings exist for one another;
that doing what’s right sometimes requires patience;
that no one does the wrong thing deliberately;
and the number of people who have feuded and envied and hated and found and died and been buries.

…. and keep your mouth shut.

Book Five, 3, 19, 22, 25: If an action or utterance is appropriate, then it’s appropriate for you.  Don’t be put off by other people’s comments and criticism.  If it’s right to say or do it, then it’s the right thing for you to do or say…. Don’t be distracted.  Keep walking. Follow your own nature, and follow Nature — along the road they share.

Things have no hold on the soul.  They have no access to it, cannot move or direct it.  It is moved and directed by itself alone.  It takes the things before it and interprets them as it sees fit.

When you think you have been injured, apply this rule: If the community isn’t injured by it, neither am I.  And if it is, anger is not the answer.  Show the offender where he went wrong.

So other people hurt me?  That’s their problem.  Their character and actions are not mine.  What is done to me is ordained by nature, what I do by my own.

Book Six, 6, 20,22:  The best revenge is not to be like that.

In the ring, our opponents can gouge us with nails or butt us with their heads… but we don’t denounce them for it or get upset with them… We just keep an eye on them after that.  Not out of hatred or suspicion.  Just keeping a friendly distance.  We need to do that in other areas.  We need to excuse what our sparing partners do, and just keep our distance — without suspicion or hatred.

When you deal with irrational animals, with things and circumstances, be generous and straightforward.  You are rational; they are not. When you deal with fellow human beings, behave as one.  They share in the Logos….

Book Seven, 22, 26, 45, 54:  To feel affection for people even when they  make mistakes is uniquely human.  You can do it, if you simply recognize: that they’re human too, they they act out of ignorance, against their will, and that you’ll both be dead before long. And, above all, that they haven’t really hurt you.  They haven’t diminished your ability to choose.

When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it.  If you understand that, you’ll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger.  Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them.  Or you sense of good and evil may differ from theirs.  In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion.  Is that so hard?

“It’s like this, gentlemen of the jury”  The spot where a person decides to station himself, or wherever his commanding officer stations him — well, I think that’s where he ought to take his stand and face the enemy, and not worry about being killed, or about anything but doing his duty.”

Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option:

to accept this event with humility [Will]
to treat this person as he should be treated [Action]
to approach this thought with care, so that nothing irrational creeps in. [Perception]

 Book Eight, 27, 34, 50:  You have three relationships:

with the body you inhabit;
with the divine, the cause of everything in all things;
with the people around you.

Have you ever seen a severed hand or foot, or a decapitated head, just lying somewhere far away from the body it belonged to?  That’s what we do to ourselves — or try to — when we rebel against what happens to us, when we segregate ourselves.  Or when we do something selfish.  You have torn yourself away from unity — your natural state, one you were born to share in.  Now you’ve cut yourself off from it.  But you have one advantage here: you can reattach yourself.  A privilege God has granted to no other part of the whole… to return, to graft ourselves back on, and take up our old position again: part of the whole.

The cucumber is bitter?  Throw it out.  There are brambles on the path?  Then go around them.  That’s all you need to know.  Nothing more. Don’t demand to know ‘why such things exist.’  Anyone who understands the world will laugh at you, just as a carpenter would if you seemed shocked at finding sawdust in his workshop…

Book Nine, 7, 40: When you face someone’s insults, hatred, whatever … look at his soul.  Get inside him.  Look at what sort of person he is.  You’ll find out you don’t need to strain to impress him.  But you do have to wish him well.  He’s your closest relative, The gods assist him just as they do you….

…Then isn’t it better to do what’s up to you — like a free man — than to be passively controlled by what isn’t, like a slave or beggar?…Start praying like this and you’ll see.

Not ‘some way to sleep with her’ — but a way to stop wanting to.
Not ‘some way to get rid of him’ — but a way to stop trying.
Not ‘some way to save my child’ — but a way to lose your fear.

Book Ten, 4, 12, 30:  If they’ve made a mistake, correct them gently and show them where they went wrong.  If you can’t do that, then the blame lies on you.  Or no one.

To follow the Logos in all things is to be relaxed and energetic, joyful and serious at once.

When faced with people’s bad behavior, turn around and ask when you have acted like that.  When you saw money as a good, or pleasure, or social position.  Your anger will subside as soon as you recognize they acted under compulsion (what else could they do?).  Or remove the compulsion, if you can.

Book Eleven, 4, 13:  Have I done something for the common good?  Then I share in the benefits.  To stay centered on that.  Not to give up.

Someone despises me. That’s their problem.  Mine: not to do or say anything despicable.  Someone hates me. Their problem. Mine: to be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them.  Ready to show them their mistake.  Not spitefully, or to show off my own self control, but in an honest upright way….

Book Twelve, 3:  Your three components: body, breath, mind.  Two are yours in trust; to the third alone do you have clear title.

Next –> Henry David Thoreau