Morning coffee with the emperor
(in the land we wished we lived in)

Thoughts on when the soul does violence to itself

29th July 2010

Like so many of you, I start each day with coffee and a little prayer of thanks that my eyelids have unglued themselves from each other yet another day. Gratitude is the key to everything, and you’d be surprised how many troubles it makes go away.

I’m no different than most of you, except I’ve learned a few tricks along the way. In fact, I’ve learned some new tricks at age 65 that I dearly would have loved to learn at 16, but life doesn’t work that way, does it? I don’t rue too long, because regret is nothing more than a quick lesson to be learned, a quickened pain to be got rid of as fast as possible with the eternal hope that we’re all smart enough to not make the same mistake twice.

So no matter where I am, no matter how dreary the landscape might be, I lift myself up and take my coffee to the palace I can always conjure — which is anywhere and everywhere we want it to be, and believe me, we all want it to be. I’m talking about the palace that life should be. I’m telling you that you have access to it at any and all times.

As I poke my nose out the door of the cute white cottage (that actual groundhogs nuzzle beneath) where I slept ever so soundly last night, and gaze over the sparkling, sunlit waters up into the soaring pines, where birds flit and bees buzz, and the white fluffy clouds whiz, always reminding us that as long as our eyes open, we are always moving with a world that cares for us, and laves our eyes with beauty if we can only carve out the peace of mind to see it.

In these magic moments I hear the words of the emperor, hanging in the air forever, just waiting to be heard. Maybe it’s the long gone voice of my father, or a whisper from our projected creator. Maybe it’s the king of the country we always dreamed did exist or would exist. We could call this voice the king of our dreams or our wishes. Or maybe it only exists inside each of us.

Listen now to what he said that one fine morning not too long ago, how he spoke, and how it makes us strong and happy just to hear his words.


•••

Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with people who are mean and deceptive — people I don’t like. They get that way by reason of their ignorance of what is good and what is evil. I have seen the nature of the good and it is beautiful, and also of the bad and it is ugly. All people participate in the same world that I do, and since we all have the same access to higher things, I cannot be injured by anybody who feels bad about themselves, nor can I be angry or hate them for what they do.

We are all made for cooperation, like feet, hands or eyelids. To act against one another is against nature, in which all animals have their place and get along. Whatever this is that I am is but a little flesh and breath — and of course the ruling part.

Throw away your books; they only distract you from yourself— this is not allowed. Act as if you are now dying. Despise the flesh. It is nothing but blood, bones and a network of nerves, veins and arteries. Observe your own breath. What is it really? Not always the same: this sent out and that sucked in.

The third thing then is the ruling part. Consider this. You are an old man. No longer let yourself be a slave. No longer let yourself be pulled like a puppet to fashionable movements. No longer be dissatisfied with your present lot, or shrink from the future.

All that is from the gods is full of providence. Fortune is not separated from nature, nor does it lack a connection to providence. From this all things flow.

But what of necessity? Necessity is that which belongs to the whole universe, of which you are a part. And it is good for every part of nature.

The universe is preserved by beneficial change. Each change which is according to nature is an improvement. This is how the universe operates. Let these principles be enough for you. Make them the rules that you follow.

So cast away your thirst after books, that you may not die murmuring, but speaking cheerfully from the heart your thanks to the unfathomable forces of fortune that brought you here to begin with.

Recall how long you have been putting off this conversation. Now you at last understand what part of the universe you belong to. If you do not clear away the clouds from your mind right now, you will never get another chance.

Every moment think steadily as a Roman and a man to do what you must with perfect and simple dignity, always feeling that affection, freedom and justice are yours to give as you see fit. Let these relieve all other thoughts.

You will get this relief if you do every act of your life as if it were your last, laying aside carelessness and passionate aversion from the commands of reason. Give away all your hypocrisy and self-love, as well as your discontent with the portion of life that has been given to you.

Then you will see how few are the things a man possesses. Do this and live a life which flows in quiet, and is like the existence of the gods. The gods on their part require nothing more than this.

Every man’s life is sufficient. But as yours is nearly finished, your soul cherishes not itself, but the happy memories of others.

Then give yourself time to learn new things, and cease to be whirled around by thoughts given to you by others.

Through not observing what is in the mind of others, a man has been seldom seen to be unhappy. But those who do not observe the movements of their own mind are always unhappy.

Always bear in mind the link between the nature of the whole and the nature of yourself. No one can ever hinder you from always doing and saying things that are the part of you which are also the part of nature.

Theophrastus, in his comparison of bad acts, says that offenses committed through desire are more reprehensible than those committed in anger. He who is excited by anger seems to turn away from reason with a certain pain and unconscious contraction; but he who offends through desire seems to be the less thoughtful person. Since it is possible you may depart from this life at this very moment, regulate every act and thought accordingly.

To go away from the world of men, if there are gods, is not a thing to be afraid of, for the gods will not involve you in evil; but if indeed they do not exist, or if they have no concern about human affairs, what is it to me to live in a universe devoid of gods or of providence?

Life and death, pain and pleasure, honor and dishonor — all these things happen to both good and bad men, and are things which make us neither better nor worse. Therefore they are neither good nor evil.

How quickly all things disappear. In the universe, it is the bodies themselves, but in time, even the remembrance of them is not remembered. What is the nature of all sensible things, and particularly those which attract with the lure of pleasure or terrify by pain, or are trumpeted abroad by vapory fame; how worthless and contemptible and sordid and dead they are — all this is part of the intellectual faculty to observe.

Nothing is more wretched than a man who travels everywhere, and pries into mysterious things, and seeks by calculation what is in the minds of his neighbors, without realizing all that is necessary is to know the daemon within him, and to appreciate it sincerely. Reverence of the spirit within consists of keeping it pure from passion and thoughtlessness, and dissatisfaction of what comes from gods and men. For the things from the gods merit veneration for their excellence, and things from men should be dear to us by reason of kinship; and sometimes even, in a manner, they move our pity by reason of men’s ignorance, which can deprive us of our ability to see even black from white.

Though you should live 3000 years, still remember that no man loses any other life than this which he now lives, nor lives any other life than this which he now loses. The longest and the shortest are thus brought to the same. For the present is the same to all, though that which perishes is not the same; and so that which is lost appears to be a mere moment. For a man cannot lose either the past or the future: for what a man has not how can anyone take this from him?

These two things you must bear in mind; the one, that all things from eternity are of like forms and come round in a circle, and that it makes no difference whether a man shall see the same things during a hundred years or two hundred, or an infinite time; and the second, that the longest liver and he who will die soonest lose just the same. For the present is the only thing of which a man can be deprived. A man can lose nothing he does not have, and we do not own the past or the future, only right now.

1. The soul of a man does violence to itself when it becomes a cancer on the universe, so to speak, acting against what nature decrees. For to be vexed at anything that happens is a separation of ourselves from nature, because in nature, the natures of all other things are contained.

2. The soul does violence to itself when it turns away from any man, or even moves toward him with the intention of injuring, like the souls of those who are angry.

3. The soul does violence to itself when it is overpowered by pleasure or by pain. 4. The soul does violence to itself when it plays a part, and does or says anything insincerely or untruly.

5. The soul does violence to itself when it allows any act of its own and any movement to be without an aim, and does anything thoughtlessly and without considering what it is, it being right that even the smallest things be done with reference to an end; and the end of rational animals is to follow the reason and the law of the most ancient city and polity.

Of human life, the time is a point, and the substance is in a flux, and the perceptions dull, and the composition of the whole body subject to putrefaction, and the soul a whirl, and fortune hard to divine, and fame a thing devoid of judgment. And to say all in a word, everything which belongs to the body is a stream, and what belong to the soul is a dream and vapor, and life is a warfare and a stranger’s journey, and after-fame is oblivion.

What then is able to carry a man? One thing and one thing only — philosophy. This consists in keeping the daemon within a man free from violence and unharmed, superior to pains and pleasures, doing nothing without a purpose, avoiding falsity and hypocrisy, nor feeling the need for someone else’s approval. And besides this, accepting all that happens and all that he is given as coming from wherever that place is that is the same place he came from himself.

And finally, waiting for death with a cheerful mind, knowing it is nothing more than an expiration of the elements which always are changing into something else. Why should a man worry about change since it is always occurring. Nothing ever stays the same. This is all according to nature, and nothing is evil which is according to nature.

Labor not unwillingly, nor without regard to the common interest, nor without due consideration, nor with distraction; nor let studied ornament set off your thoughts, and be not either a man of many words, or busy about too many things. And further, let the deity which is in you be the guardian of a living being, manly and of ripe age, and engaged in matter political, and a Roman, and a ruler, who has taken his post like a man waiting for the signal, having need neither of oath nor any man’s testimony. Be also cheerful, and seek not external help nor the tranquillity which others give. A man must stand erect, not be kept erect by others.

If you work at whatever is before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you, but keeping your divine part pure — as if you should be bound to give it back immediately — if you hold fast to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with your present activity according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word you speak and every sound you make, you will live happily. And there is no man who is able to prevent you from achieving this.

Soon, very soon, you will be ashes, or a skeleton, and either a name or not even a name; but name is only sound and echo. And the things which are much valued in life are empty and rotten and trifling, like little dogs biting one another, like little children quarreling, laughing, then straightaway weeping. But fidelity and modesty and justice and truth are fled, up to Olympus from the widespread earth.

Why then do you not wait in tranquillity for your end, whether it is extinction or removal to another state?

And until that time comes, what do you really need to do?

What could be more appropriate than to worship the gods that have given you this great gift from which you have derived such joy?

And bless them for these gifts you have been given, and to do good to men. Have you felt this pleasure, to do something really meaningful for someone else, and watch in a kind of shamefully humble pride as they, with tears in their eyes, thank you for it? And to practice tolerance of the foibles of others. And to show self-restraint when faced with the myriad temptations that will only tarnish your own image of yourself.

And as to everything that is beyond our poor flesh and breath, be careful to remember that these are not yours, nor in your power to control.

But what you can control is the thing inside you, that grows in strength through honor and dignity. You need no one to approve what you do if you act through these, and above all, no one — man or god — can ever take them away from you, under any circumstances.

(For the great Roman emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, happiness comes from understanding that a virtuous soul participates in eternity, while everything else — power, riches, prestige — vanish with our mortal shells. True strength is the inner strength of self mastery. A man who knows this will neither be intoxicated by earthly authority nor overwhelmed by its frustrations and failures.)

This edited and redacted portion of “The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius” was extracted from the wonderful anthology “What is a Man?” by Waller R. Newell, HarperCollins Publishing, 2000.)



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