Thursday, December 17, 2009

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius. Penguin Classics (2006). 304 pages. Cost: Bought for $11.00 from Borders. Assumed to be written c. 170-180 AD. Edited by Martin Hammond.

Meditations was written by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius as a journal, a collection of encouragements, aphorisms, and reflections to himself. The recurrent themes in his writings include the smallness and fragility of life against the immensity of time and the universe, and the meaninglessness of the distractions in our lives - criticisms from others, worldly goods, power - in that context. Whether we inflate or deflate ourselves, do we need to take ourselves so seriously, in the grand scheme of things? Consider again the smallness of our existence, he says!

How all things quickly vanish, our bodies themselves lost in the physical world, the memories of them lost in time; the nature of all objects of the senses - especially those which allure us with pleasure, frighten us with pain, or enjoy the applause of vanity - how cheap they are, how contemptible, shoddy, perishable, and dead: these are matters for our intellectual faculty to consider. And further considerations. What are they, these people whose judgments and voices confer or deny esteem? What is death? Someone looking at death per se, and applying the analytical power of his mind to divest death of its associated images, will conclude then that it is nothing more than a function of nature - and if anyone is frightened of a function of nature, he is a mere child. And death is not only a function of nature, but also to her benefit.

Well then, will a little fame distract you? Look at the speed of universal oblivion, the gulf of immeasurable time both before and after, the vacuity of applause, the indiscriminate fickleness of your apparent supporters, the tiny room in which all this is confined. The whole earth is a mere point in space: what a minute cranny within this is your own habitation, and how many and what sort will sing your praises here!

You may leave this life at any moment: have this possibility in your mind in all that you do or say or think.

...there is a limit circumscribed to your time - if you do not use it to clear away your clouds, it will be gone, and you will be gone, and the opportunity will not return.

Every hour of the day give vigorous attention, as a Roman and as a man, to the performance of the task in hand with precise analysis, with unaffected dignity, with human sympathy, with dispassionate justice - and to vacating your mind from all its other thoughts.

Nothing is more miserable than one who is always out and about running round everything in circles - in Pindar's words 'delving deep in the bowels of the earth' - and looking for signs and symptoms to divine his neighbors' minds. He does not realize that it is sufficient to concentrate solely on the divinity within himself and to give it true service.

Be like the rocky headland on which the waves constantly break. It stands firm, and round it the seething waters are laid to rest.

So display those virtues which are wholly in your power - integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity. Do you not see how many virtues you can already display without any excuse of lack of talent or aptitude?

Above all, no agonies, no tensions. Be your own master, and look at things as a man, as a human being, as a citizen, as a mortal creature.

No, you do not have thousands of years to live. Urgency is on you. While you live, while you can, become good.

1 comment:

cute said...

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