1. Another encouragement to humility: you can’t claim to have lived your life as a philosopher—not even your whole adulthood. You can see for yourself how far you are from philosophy. And so can many others. You’re tainted. It’s not so easy now—to have a reputation as a philosopher. And your position is an obstacle as well.
So you know how things stand. Now forget what they think of you. Be satisfied if you can live the rest of your life, however short, as your nature demands. Focus on that, and don’t let anything distract you. You’ve wandered all over and finally realized that you never found what you were after: how to live. Not in syllogisms, not in money, or fame, or self-indulgence. Nowhere.
—Then where is it to be found?
In doing what human nature requires.
Through first principles. Which should govern your intentions and your actions.
Those to do with good and evil. That nothing is good except what leads to fairness, and self-control, and courage, and free will. And nothing bad except what does the opposite.
2. For every action, ask: How does it affect me? Could I change my mind about it?
But soon I’ll be dead, and the slate’s empty. So this is the only question: Is it the action of a responsible being, part of society, and subject to the same decrees as God?
3. Alexander and Caesar and Pompey. Compared with Diogenes, Heraclitus, Socrates? The philosophers knew the what, the why, the how. Their minds were their own.
The others? Nothing but anxiety and enslavement.
4. You can hold your breath until you turn blue, but they’ll still go on doing it.
5. The first step: Don’t be anxious. Nature controls it all. And before long you’ll be no one, nowhere—like Hadrian, like Augustus.
The second step: Concentrate on what you have to do. Fix your eyes on it. Remind yourself that your task is to be a good human being; remind yourself what nature demands of people. Then do it, without hesitation, and speak the truth as you see it. But with kindness. With humility. Without hypocrisy.
6. Nature’s job: to shift things elsewhere, to transform them, to pick them up and move them here and there. Constant alteration. But not to worry: there’s nothing new here. Everything is familiar. Even the proportions are unchanged.
7. Nature of any kind thrives on forward progress. And progress for a rational mind means not accepting falsehood or uncertainty in its perceptions, making unselfish actions its only aim, seeking and shunning only the things it has control over, embracing what nature demands of it—the nature in which it participates, as the leaf’s nature does in the tree’s. Except that the nature shared by the leaf is without consciousness or reason, and subject to impediments. Whereas that shared by human beings is without impediments, and rational, and just, since it allots to each and every thing an equal and proportionate share of time, being, purpose, action, chance. Examine it closely. Not whether they’re identical point by point, but in the aggregate: this weighed against that.
8. No time for reading. For controlling your arrogance, yes. For overcoming pain and pleasure, yes. For outgrowing ambition, yes. For not feeling anger at stupid and unpleasant people—even for caring about them—for that, yes.
9. Don’t be overheard complaining about life at court. Not even to yourself.
10. Remorse is annoyance at yourself for having passed up something that’s to your benefit. But if it’s to your benefit it must be good—something a truly good person would be concerned about.
But no truly good person would feel remorse at passing up pleasure.
So it cannot be to your benefit, or good.
11. What is this, fundamentally? What is its nature and substance, its reason for being? What is it doing in the world? How long is it here for?
12. When you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, remember that your defining characteristic—what defines a human being—is to work with others. Even animals know how to sleep. And it’s the characteristic activity that’s the more natural one—more innate and more satisfying.
13. Apply them constantly, to everything that happens: Physics. Ethics. Logic.
14. When you have to deal with someone, ask yourself: What does he mean by good and bad? If he thinks x or y about pleasure and pain (and what produces them), about fame and disgrace, about death and life, then it shouldn’t shock or surprise you when he does x or y.
In fact, I’ll remind myself that he has no real choice.
15. Remember: you shouldn’t be surprised that a fig tree produces figs, nor the world what it produces. A good doctor isn’t surprised when his patients have fevers, or a helmsman when the wind blows against him.
16. Remember that to change your mind and to accept correction are free acts too. The action is yours, based on your own will, your own decision—and your own mind.
17. If it’s in your control, why do you do it? If it’s in someone else’s, then who are you blaming? Atoms? The gods? Stupid either way.
Blame no one. Set people straight, if you can. If not, just repair the damage. And suppose you can’t do that either. Then where does blaming people get you?
No pointless actions.
18. What dies doesn’t vanish. It stays here in the world, transformed, dissolved, as parts of the world, and of you. Which are transformed in turn—without grumbling.
19. Everything is here for a purpose, from horses to vine shoots. What’s surprising about that? Even the sun will tell you, “I have a purpose,” and the other gods as well. And why were you born? For pleasure? See if that answer will stand up to questioning.
20. Nature is like someone throwing a ball in the air, gauging its rise and arc—and where it will fall. And what does the ball gain as it flies upward? Or lose when it plummets to earth?
What does the bubble gain from its existence? Or lose by bursting?
And the same for a candle.
21. Turn it inside out: What is it like? What is it like old? Or sick? Or selling itself on the streets?
They all die soon—praiser and praised, rememberer and remembered. Remembered in these parts or in a corner of them. Even there they don’t all agree with each other (or even with themselves).
And the whole earth a mere point in space.
22. Stick to what’s in front of you—idea, action, utterance.
22a. This is what you deserve. You could be good today. But instead you choose tomorrow.
23. What I do? I attribute it to human beneficence.
What is done to me? I accept it—and attribute it to the gods, and that source from which all things together flow.
24. Like the baths—oil, sweat, dirt, grayish water, all of it disgusting.
The whole of life, all of the visible world.
25. Verus, leaving Lucilla behind, then Lucilla. Maximus, leaving Secunda. And Secunda. Diotimus, leaving Epitynchanus. Then Epitynchanus. Faustina, leaving Antoninus. Then Antoninus.
So with all of them.
Hadrian, leaving Celer. And Celer.
Where have they gone, the brilliant, the insightful ones, the proud? Brilliant as Charax and Demetrius the Platonist and Eudaemon and the rest of them. Short-lived creatures, long dead. Some of them not remembered at all, some become legends, some lost even to legend.
So remember: your components will be scattered too, the life within you quenched. Or marching orders and another posting.
26. Joy for humans lies in human actions.
Human actions: kindness to others, contempt for the senses, the interrogation of appearances, observation of nature and of events in nature.
27. Three relationships:
i. with the body you inhabit;
ii. with the divine, the cause of everything in all things;
iii. with the people around you.
28. Either pain affects the body (which is the body’s problem) or it affects the soul. But the soul can choose not to be affected, preserving its own serenity, its own tranquillity. All our decisions, urges, desires, aversions lie within. No evil can touch them.
29. To erase false perceptions, tell yourself: I have it in me to keep my soul from evil, lust and all confusion. To see things as they are and treat them as they deserve. Don’t overlook this innate ability.
30. To speak to the Senate—or anyone—in the right tone, without being overbearing. To choose the right words.
31. Augustus’s court: his wife, his daughter, his grandsons, his stepsons, his sister, Agrippa, the relatives, servants, friends, Areius, Maecenas, the doctors, the sacrificial priests … the whole court, dead.
And consider the others … not just the deaths of individuals (like the family of the Pompeys).
That line they write on tombs—“last surviving descendant.” Consider their ancestors’ anxiety—that there be a successor. But someone has to be the last. There, too, the death of a whole house.
32. You have to assemble your life yourself—action by action. And be satisfied if each one achieves its goal, as far as it can. No one can keep that from happening.
—But there are external obstacles.…
Not to behaving with justice, self-control, and good sense.
—Well, but perhaps to some more concrete action.
But if you accept the obstacle and work with what you’re given, an alternative will present itself—another piece of what you’re trying to assemble. Action by action.
33. To accept it without arrogance, to let it go with indifference.
34. 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 no other whole—to be separated, cut away, and reunited. But look how he’s singled us out. He’s allowed us not to be broken off in the first place, and when we are he’s allowed us to return, to graft ourselves back on, and take up our old position once again: part of a whole.
35. We have various abilities, present in all rational creatures as in the nature of rationality itself. And this is one of them. Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it—turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself—so, too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal.
36. Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?” You’ll be embarrassed to answer.
Then remind yourself that past and future have no power over you. Only the present—and even that can be minimized. Just mark off its limits. And if your mind tries to claim that it can’t hold out against that … well, then, heap shame upon it.
37. Are Pantheia or Pergamos still keeping watch at the tomb of Verus? Chabrias or Diotimus at the tomb of Hadrian? Of course they aren’t. Would the emperors know it if they were?
And even if they knew, would it please them?
And even if it did, would the mourners live forever? Were they, too, not fated to grow old and then die? And when that happened, what would the emperors do?
38. The stench of decay. Rotting meat in a bag.
Look at it clearly. If you can.
39. “To the best of my judgment, when I look at the human character I see no virtue placed there to counter justice. But I see one to counter pleasure: self-control.”
40. Stop perceiving the pain you imagine and you’ll remain completely unaffected.
—But I’m not just logos.
Fine. Just don’t let the logos be injured. If anything else is, let it decide that for itself.
41. For animate beings, “harmful” is whatever obstructs the operation of their senses—or the fulfillment of what they intend. Similar obstructions constitute harm to plants. So too for rational creatures, anything that obstructs the operation of the mind is harmful.
Apply this to yourself.
Do pain and pleasure have their hooks in you? Let the senses deal with it. Are there obstacles to your action? If you failed to reckon with the possibility, then that would harm you, as a rational being. But if you use common sense, you haven’t been harmed or even obstructed. No one can obstruct the operations of the mind. Nothing can get at them—not fire or steel, not tyrants, not abuse—nothing. As long as it’s “a sphere … in perfect stillness.”
42. I have no right to do myself an injury. Have I ever injured anyone else if I could avoid it?
43. People find pleasure in different ways. I find it in keeping my mind clear. In not turning away from people or the things that happen to them. In accepting and welcoming everything I see. In treating each thing as it deserves.
44. Give yourself a gift: the present moment.
People out for posthumous fame forget that the Generations To Come will be the same annoying people they know now. And just as mortal. What does it matter to you if they say x about you, or think y?
45. Lift me up and hurl me. Wherever you will. My spirit will be gracious to me there—gracious and satisfied—as long as its existence and actions match its nature.
Is there any reason why my soul should suffer and be degraded—miserable, tense, huddled, frightened? How could there be?
46. What humans experience is part of human experience. The experience of the ox is part of the experience of oxen, as the vine’s is of the vine, and the stone’s what is proper to stones.
Nothing that can happen is unusual or unnatural, and there’s no sense in complaining. Nature does not make us endure the unendurable.
47. External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now.
If the problem is something in your own character, who’s stopping you from setting your mind straight?
And if it’s that you’re not doing something you think you should be, why not just do it?
—But there are insuperable obstacles.
Then it’s not a problem. The cause of your inaction lies outside you.
—But how can I go on living with that undone?
Then depart, with a good conscience, as if you’d done it, embracing the obstacles too.
48. Remember that when it withdraws into itself and finds contentment there, the mind is invulnerable. It does nothing against its will, even if its resistance is irrational. And if its judgment is deliberate and grounded in logic …?
The mind without passions is a fortress. No place is more secure. Once we take refuge there we are safe forever. Not to see this is ignorance. To see it and not seek safety means misery.
49. Nothing but what you get from first impressions. That someone has insulted you, for instance. That—but not that it’s done you any harm. The fact that my son is sick—that I can see. But “that he might die of it,” no. Stick with first impressions. Don’t extrapolate. And nothing can happen to you.
Or extrapolate. From a knowledge of all that can happen in the world.
50. The cucumber is bitter? Then throw it out.
There are brambles in 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, or a shoemaker at scraps of leather left over from work.
Of course, they have a place to dispose of these; nature has no door to sweep things out of. But the wonderful thing about its workmanship is how, faced with that limitation, it takes everything within it that seems broken, old and useless, transforms it into itself, and makes new things from it. So that it doesn’t need material from any outside source, or anywhere to dispose of what’s left over. It relies on itself for all it needs: space, material, and labor.
51. No carelessness in your actions. No confusion in your words. No imprecision in your thoughts. No retreating into your own soul, or trying to escape it. No overactivity.
They kill you, cut you with knives, shower you with curses. And that somehow cuts your mind off from clearness, and sanity, and self-control, and justice?
A man standing by a spring of clear, sweet water and cursing it. While the fresh water keeps on bubbling up. He can shovel mud into it, or dung, and the stream will carry it away, wash itself clean, remain unstained.
To have that. Not a cistern but a perpetual spring.
How? By working to win your freedom. Hour by hour. Through patience, honesty, humility.
52. Not to know what the world is is to be ignorant of where you are.
Not to know why it’s here is to be ignorant of who you are. And what it is.
Not to know any of this is to be ignorant of why you’re here.
And what are we to make of anyone who cares about the applause of such people, who don’t know where or who they are?
53. You want praise from people who kick themselves every fifteen minutes, the approval of people who despise themselves. (Is it a sign of self-respect to regret nearly everything you do?)
54. To join ourselves not just to the air surrounding us, through breath, but to the reason that embraces all things, through thought. Reason is just as omnipresent, just as widely diffused in those who accept it as air is in those who breathe.
55. The existence of evil does not harm the world. And an individual act of evil does not harm the victim. Only one person is harmed by it—and he can stop being harmed as soon as he decides to.
56. Other people’s wills are as independent of mine as their breath and bodies. We may exist for the sake of one another, but our will rules its own domain. Otherwise the harm they do would cause harm to me. Which is not what God intended—for my happiness to rest with someone else.
57. We speak of the sun’s light as “pouring down on us,” as “pouring over us” in all directions. Yet it’s never poured out. Because it doesn’t really pour; it extends. Its beams (aktai) get their name from their extension (ekteinesthai).
To see the nature of a sunbeam, look at light as it falls through a narrow opening into a dark room. It extends in a straight line, striking any solid object that stands in its way and blocks the space beyond it. There it remains—not vanishing, or falling away.
That’s what the outpouring—the diffusion—of thought should be like: not emptied out, but extended. And not striking at obstacles with fury and violence, or falling away before them, but holding its ground and illuminating what receives it.
What doesn’t transmit light creates its own darkness.
58. Fear of death is fear of what we may experience. Nothing at all, or something quite new. But if we experience nothing, we can experience nothing bad. And if our experience changes, then our existence will change with it—change, but not cease.
59. People exist for one another. You can instruct or endure them.
60. An arrow has one motion and the mind another. Even when pausing, even when weighing conclusions, the mind is moving forward, toward its goal.
61. To enter others’ minds and let them enter yours.