The Sparrows Flying Past: On “The Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius

By the Maronite Seminarian
Alejandro Landin

A drained and battle-hardened emperor, his countenance tempered like steel, sits in a quiet place inside of his military camp. The harsh and burdening reality of his position, one of great power and responsibility, is always on his mind like a thick fog hovering over a plain. And yet, the fear of death, like an icy pang to his side, constantly creeps into his thoughts reminding him that it is ever present and never distant. For a moment, he begins to daydream about partaking in philosophical discussions at a school in Rome, then about returning home to shouts of praise by the multitude of his citizens, and then to indulge in lavish gifts and foods of all sorts. But then quickly, as if a switch were turned on, his temper shifts. He recognizes the foolishness and vanity in these things: “The things much honored in life are vain, corruptible and of no import.” (“The Meditations” v.33).  To love and pursue these things is like “to love one of the sparrows flying past, and behold, it has vanished out of sight.” (vi.15) In fact, not just vanities, but “such indeed is life itself for every man!” (vi.15). A fleeting thing which comes and vanishes. He welcomes the thought of death, “reflect thus as if death were before you” (ii.2) and puts all his focus onto his tasks at hand while telling himself: “perform every action as if it was the last of your life.” (ii.5)

This is perhaps the exact setting under which Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor who ruled from 161 to 180 A.D., drafted a series of personal notes to himself called “The Meditations.” In this essay, I wish to discuss five philosophical outlooks which he adopts and what they reveal about human nature, their merits and/or limitations and how they help to calm the fear of death.

The first strategy: Indifference. One of the most profound problems with which human nature struggles is the problem of how the wicked can be prosperous, having goods, riches, wealth, popularity and fame, meanwhile the good can be poor and detested. According to Marcus Aurelius, since things like wealth and poverty are given to the good and the bad alike, they are neither good nor evil in themselves (ii.11; iv.39). Therefore, that the wicked have wealth and riches and that the good are lacking in these is of no importance, for these things are not to be thought of as rewards or punishments for behavior, but rather as externals to which the virtuous man should be indifferent.

This indifference should extend not only to riches but to other people’s opinions. Marcus makes a profound observation when he states that all men love themselves above others, yet they value other people’s opinions over their own (xii.4).  Yet, of what practical use is the praise of others? Marcus asserts that what is beautiful owes its beauty to itself and that neither praise nor criticism can add or take away its beauty (iv.20).

This method of indifference towards praise and riches is meritorious for two reasons. One, it asserts that the dignity of a person is not dependent on the opinion of others nor from their wealth, but that one’s personal worth should come from within – from the cultivation of virtues like high-mindedness, freedom, simplicity, piety and most importantly wisdom, which Marcus held to be the most delightful thing to possess (v.9). Second, since riches and praise are of no value, we should be indifferent to them and not make them the object of our prayers. Marcus says instead that we should pray to be rid of fear and anxiety, in this case the fear and anxiety of death rather than for worldly possessions (ix.40) or for the good of the whole community and not just ourselves (v.7).

However, what makes the attitude of indifference have the greatest merit is when it is applied to the fear of death. Marcus did not see death as something harmful but rather as a function of nature and therefore beneficial to it (ii.12). He told himself not to despise it, but to find satisfaction in it (ix.3), for even those who call pleasure good and pain evil fear death (xii.34). But the fear of death is only the fear of the unknown (viii.58). Marcus also believed that after his death, everything of which he was composed, “flesh, breath of life, and directing mind” (ii.2) will be absorbed by the force which guides the universe, the Logos. This leads us into our next strategy, reason. But first, I will discuss one of the limitations of indifference.

Indifference to fellow men can also lead to a lack of proportion. Marcus states that “men’s ignorance of good and evil is no less a disability than to be unable to distinguish black and white.” He goes on to say that he must “find joy in simplicity, self-respect, and indifference to what lies between virtue and vice.” (ii.13) This type of indifference is bad because it fails to see a mean between absolute virtue and vice. That is, it lacks a sense of proportion. Very often, men are not totally virtuous or vicious. They can fluctuate back and forth and exist somewhere in between the two. Without proper guidance, some men may remain in the middle forever and may never receive proper instruction on how to cultivate their virtuousness if an attitude of indifference is adopted towards them.

The second strategy: Reason. Marcus believed that Reason itself was the force which governed the universe (VI.1). He frequently reminds himself that it permeates throughout all of nature, including himself (II.1,4; III.4,5,6,13; IV.14; V.27,32; XII.26). Marcus says that if Reason is what guides the universe and that every man has in common the fact that he is a reasonable (or rational) being, then that makes all of us part of a community or city or even a common government (iv.4).

Reason thus reveals something profound about human nature, that man is a citizen of the Whole (III.11); that every man is like a limb in a body, working for the good of the whole body (VII.13). Therefore, Marcus reasons that if the universe is like a city or a body, of which he is just a small part, then what is good for the whole community is good for him (VI.44).

This strategy is meritorious insofar as it promotes selflessness for the sake of the common good. Not only that, it has the capability of seeing death as a good that is necessary for the whole. This could be a comforting thought to Marcus on his deathbed – the knowledge of that his death will contribute to the good of his fellow man could give it sort of a sacrificial aspect.

However, this strategy is a limitation insofar as it reduces the nature of God to simply a pervasive force with no affection towards the things which he (or it) causes to be. Marcus says that God is indifferent to man because man is so far below him and that it is “impossible” for God to care about man (vii.35). This perspective of God is one that is very cold and could leave an impression of emptiness or loneliness for anyone who would adopt this view.

The third strategy: Self-sufficiency. This strategy is a bit of a follow up to the first. From the first strategy we learned that man should not derive his worth from the opinions of others, but that it should come from within. With that in mind, Marcus observes another interesting occurrence in human nature: the tendency to want to make excuses: “I have not the natural gift.” (v.5) some men might say. However, Marcus makes it clear that the most important things for which a man should strive, the virtues, are things that can be attained by anyone regardless of a lack of inborn talent or of inaptitude. Sincerity, dignity, endurance of pain, indifference to pleasure, etc. are all virtues that are entirely within one’s power.

Although this strategy does not do much to calm the fear of death, it can be a meritorious strategy to have because it holds men accountable for their own virtuousness. It does not discriminate against others because of handicaps, lack of proper education, upbringing, etc. Rather, it holds man equal insofar as they all have the potential, and obligation, to be virtuous.

The fourth strategy: Discipline. Marcus says that the kind of thoughts we have will have an affect on the mind: “your mind is dyed by your thoughts” (v.16). The entirety of “The Meditations” could be seen as an exercise in discipline. Because human nature has a tendency to be shaped by its thoughts – for example, frequently thoughts about a particular vice work to predispose one towards that vice – Marcus knows it is important to train his mind not to think about things that are not becoming of a Roman Emperor.

This strategy is meritorious in two ways. First, it is true that our thoughts do have a large effect on our actions. Marcus employs this strategy of disciplining his mind in many areas, but most particularly towards calming the fear of death. The more Marcus reminds himself not to fear death, the more his mind will be accustomed to the idea that death is not something to be feared. Second, it is meritorious because it points out that the way to treat a bad or vicious person is to treat their state of mind (xii.16) Thus, it reveals that the character of a man can be changed with good habits and positive thoughts.

On the other hand, I believe that if taken too far, this strategy could prove to be more of a limitation than a merit. I believe the emotions are good so long as they are properly ordered. For example, it is good to be angry and hate injustice or evil and it is good to love and praise the good so long as one does it in an orderly manner. It is true that man needs to build emotional defenses to retain his sanity; however, he also sometimes needs emotional motivation.

The fifth strategy: Leisure. Marcus begins his first book of “The Meditations” with a list of some of the people whom he admired and the virtues he admired in them and wished to emulate. From his father, he learned the importance of leisure – “when there is need for exertion and when for relaxation.” (I.16) Marcus’ leisure consisted of finding a retreat within his own mind, for nowhere could a man find a more untroubled place than in the confines of his own soul (IV.3). He said it was important to grant himself this retreat continually for refreshment.

Leisure has two merits for Marcus. The first is to provide refreshment. The second is to indulge in theoretical contemplation, through which Marcus can gain knowledge of things human and divine (III.1). It is during these moments of contemplation that Marcus can reflect on the nature of death – that is only a function of nature and beneficial to all (II.12), for nothing that is a part of nature can be evil (II.17). Of course, leisure can become a limitation if one allows oneself to indulge in it too often, but I believe Marcus’ discipline would be enough to temper the amount of time that he would spend in leisurely activities.

In this paper, I have discussed indifference, reason, self-sufficiency, discipline, and leisure were very large factors that shaped the life and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. I have analyzed what they revealed about human nature in general and Marcus in particular – how they helped him overcome his fear of death – and I discussed their merits and limitations. Some questions still remain, however, such as the extent to which Marcus Aurelius would be indifferent to a lack of man’s understanding of good and evil? Does it mean he would be indifferent all together and shun the man completely? Or, that he would take actions to help the man but remain emotionally uninvolved and maintaining only an attitude of indifference? These are questions that I would love to explore in more detail in the future.

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