Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, August 04, 2008

M. AURELIUS: Meditations (Book 8)

Throughout the ages people have been searching without success for the meaning of life. You may be one of them. Well today’s your lucky day! Marcus Aurelius has not only found the meaning of life but has also outlined it in four easy steps. Of course Marcus doesn’t call it “the meaning of life”; he calls it “the proper work of a man.” And the first step in the proper work of a man is “to be benevolent to his own kind.” Or, in plain English: be good to people. That’s harder than it sounds. A lot of times people will do things that irritate us. They may even do things that enrage us. Never mind. Marcus informs us that “men will do the same things even though you burst with rage.” Don’t wait for people to change. Be good to them starting today because “the men of tomorrow will be exactly like these whom we cannot bear now.” People won’t change just to please us. So we either “teach them then or bear with them.”

The second step in the meaning of life is “to despise the movement of the senses.” That one’s a little harder to understand. But Marcus gives us a clue when he says “you are far from philosophy. You have fallen into disorder…” And it’s a shame that you’ve fallen into such bad disorder because “it is your duty to be a good man.” You can’t be a good man and continue to live badly. Therefore, “it is your duty to order your life well…” The movement of our senses (i.e. taking drugs, watching pornography, etc) arouses our passions. Our passions lead us into disorder. Disorder ruins our lives. Philosophy teaches us how to order our lives by freeing our minds from our passions. And according to the philosophy of Marcus “the mind that is free from the passions is a citadel.” This is the kind of citadel we should retreat to often.

The third step in the meaning of life is “to form a just judgment of plausible appearances.” That sounds even harder to understand than the movement of the senses. But all Marcus is trying to do here is lay down some first principles. We need a strong foundation to build on. These first principles are very simple rules; really just plain common sense. Marcus says that “nothing should be done without purpose” because “everything exists for some end, be it a horse, a vine” or a man. Marcus then goes on to ask, “For what purpose then do you exist?” This sounds a whole lot like asking: why am I here? Which is a whole lot like asking: what is the meaning of life? It seems like we’ve just come full circle and ended up right back where we started. But here’s the difference – now we’re trying to answer the question according to the “just judgment of plausible appearances.” Marcus gives examples: “A cucumber is bitter.” Throw it away. “There are briars in the road.” Turn aside from them. This is enough. Do not add, “And why were such things made in the world?” In other words, don’t go around asking questions like “what is the meaning of life?” Just see things for what they really are and then accept them as they are without judging them. Then you can live in harmony with reality.

Last but not least we need to “take a survey of the nature of the universe.” This isn’t nearly as hard as the other three. All you have to do is take a few courses in calculus, physics, etc. and find out how the universe works. Only then can you understand what Marcus means when he says “the universal nature converts and fixes in its predestined place everything that stands in the way and opposes it.” The universe is impersonal but it’s also a very orderly kind of place. It’s the kind of place where rational creatures can learn the meaning of life by studying philosophy. The good news is we’re rational creatures and can bring order into our lives via philosophy. The bad news is ““you are far from philosophy. You have fallen into disorder…”


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