Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

M. AURELIUS: Meditations (Book 10)

One of the most widely quoted phrases in the western world is “Know Thyself.” Marcus Aurelius agrees that this is a wise approach to life. For example, he believes when someone is bothering us we shouldn’t ask why this guy acts like that; you should ask yourself why it bothers you in the first place: “begin with yourself, and examine yourself first.” You may not have control over what other people do, but you should have control over yourself. How can I do that? Marcus has several tips: you could “Inquire of yourself as soon as you wake from sleep, whether it will make any difference to you if another does what is just and right. It will make no difference.” Just tell yourself: I don’t care what that other guy does, I’m not going to let it bother me. Or you could just try ignoring obnoxious people. Marcus says you should ask yourself: “who is he that will hinder you from being good and simple?” If that doesn’t work you could reflect that “Whatever may happen to you, it was prepared for you from all eternity…” That sounds ok when you first read it but stop and think about it for a second. Does it seem likely that from all eternity there was a master plan for this particular guy to get on your nerves?

Maybe so, maybe not. In any case, reading these Meditations can get on your nerves after awhile. I hate to say that because everything Marcus says is so rational and noble and uplifting. But sometimes it’s just too hard for ordinary people to measure up to his expectations. He asks “will you be satisfied with your present condition, and pleased with all that is around you, and will you convince yourself that you have everything and that it comes from the gods, that everything is well for you, and will be well whatever shall please them.” Some days that’s really hard to do. Everything is not well all the time. Sometimes I’m not satisfied with my present condition. I turn on the news and I’m not pleased at all about what’s going on in the world. Then I read Marcus and feel like a whiner. His advice is to buck up and take it like a man: “Everything that happens either happens in such way as you are formed by nature to bear it, or as you are not formed by nature to bear it.” Great. If you can bear it, don’t complain, just bear it. If you can’t bear it, don’t complain, “for it will perish after it has consumed you.” Everything that doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. Marcus is like a Marine drill sergeant and he knows it. That’s why he’s writing these meditations. He also knows the reaction most people will have: “Let us at last breathe freely being relieved of this schoolmaster. It is true that he was harsh to none of us, but I perceived that he tacitly condemned us.”

Having said that, I still think everyone should read at least some of Marcus Aurelius’ meditations about life. Sometimes we need stern schoolmasters to tell us what we don’t want to hear. For example: “You have but a short time left to live. Live as on a mountain. For it makes no difference whether a man lives there or here.” Books, magazines, movies and television are all full of dreams about getting away from the rat race we call modern life. This can become an excuse for shirking our responsibilities. Reading Marcus is like a splash of cold water and it brings us back to reality: “Let this always be plain to you, that this piece of land is like any other; and that all things here are the same as things on the top of a mountain, or on the seashore, or wherever you choose to be.” You can’t run away from life. Do you want the whole world to change? If that’s what you want Marcus would say, “begin with yourself, and examine yourself first.”


Blogger SMJ said...

Our inability or unwillingness to follow Marcus Aurelius' advice does not mean that his advice is unsound. If he was preaching to us from a belief in his own superior moral vision, then we might take offense. But there is no evidence that he ever wanted his private mediations published for others to read. Nevertheless, his views indicate a profound grasp of human psychology. Most of our suffering is indeed self-inflicted, and the result of our inability to control our own rapacious desires. Aurelius might sound like a marine drill sergeant at times, but that's because he doesn't pander to our modern penchant for martyrdom. We live in an age which might best be described as the "triumph of the victim," where we indulge in endless fault finding and breast beating over every peccadillo. Aurelius' advice is to get over it. Take care of your own business and stop whining about the failures of others. It's good advice if you can handle it. If you can't, then vaya con Dios.

8/20/2008 7:57 AM  

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