By Marcus Aurelius
Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1991
From the original Latin of 2nd century AD
ISBN # 0-87975-702-7
122 pagess

Comments by Bob Corbett
February 2010

I was expecting this to be a more philosophical text than it is. Rather, written for himself, it gives some lovely, even utopian advice on living well, but it is quickly apparent that much of it is done in a context of giving advice to someone (himself) who is living a fairly decent life in a rather privileged situation. Further, the nature of values is taken for granted, or at least assumed that certain values are in harmony with what we know of the name of the universe.

I am quite attracted to his notion that the universe, and our planet in particular, can be understood as a unit of great cohesion, and that it would behoove humans who wish to have a happy life to learn skills of conforming to that universal system. Yet he doesn’t deal with the hard questions about how the individual and that system mesh it such a way that the individual can, indeed, maximize his or her pleasure.

What is this “given”? Some of it comes from the nature of the universe and system of life on the planet earth. It is with that part of our experience that the Meditations seem spot on. On the other hand, some of this “given” comes from our own actions and reactions to what is given us in the world organized by humans. Marcus Aurelius has slaves. Let’s consider the life of Aurelius and one of his slaves. Has the system of the cosmos and earth determined which will be the master and which the slave? Are their choices of value and implementation of goals accompanied by power that effect those positions. Aurelius seems to me to assume the former, and I assume the latter. He seems not aware or interested in any of the vexing problems that would come from such an investigation.

Put differently and simply, even Aurelius seems to agree that we are not fully determined beings. Otherwise his book, urging us to be rational and CHANGE our lives according to some of these rational principles he asserts, would make no sense at all. Thus, if we can make choices, then we are not FULLY determined, and if not fully determined it seems to me we might well value some choices over others, including the choice as whether to submit to being a slave, or to exercise one’s power to own and control a slave, to take one easy example.

Again, I am attracted to the assertion that the world is a huge system, and each of us a part, and that learning that fact and adjusting our lives to it is wise. However, I am disappointed that he doesn’t also allow that human choices are in fact a very part of the existing order at any given time, and that choices can be made on the basis of values chosen and not just the given historical context. If the latter is assumed, human choosing turns out to be much more complex.

Given that he just seems to take the world as he experiences it and then says: Do the best with this that you can, that is TOLERATE it. That I could never abide, and his precious calmness and reasoned control over all is not the way I want to deal with brutal human abuses of other humans and the planet it self. I much prefer a world of personal responsibility, accompanied by justified anger and rejection of those who would put a certain stamp onto the world in which we live; a stamp which often harms other humans and/or the rest of the planet.

For me Aurelius’s pious advice is just too accepting of situations created by humans which I think must often be vehemently rejected and opposed. There is a certain irony in his stoicism given that he wrote much The Meditations while in the north trying to stop Germanic aggression southward. So he, too, must have had some sense of rejecting or trying to reject, the course of things around him.

Perhaps the difference between Aurelius’s world view and my own boils down to whether or not values can be known absolutely by reason. He seems to definitely think it can, I, for sure, do not believe values can be known for certain with reason, and believe that quite reasonable people may differ. The implications of such notions are wide-ranging and seem likely to be at the heart of our differing views of human existence.

Bob Corbett


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