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10 excerpts from Marcus Aurelius' 'Meditations' to unlock your inner Stoic
Great ideas in philosophy often come in dense packages. Then there is where the work of Marcus Aurelius.
- Meditations is a collection of the philosophical ideas of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
- Written as a series of notes to himself, the book is much more readable than the dry philosophy most people are used to.
- The advice he gave to himself 2,000 years ago is increasingly applicable in our hectic, stressed-out lives.
Stoicism is an increasingly popular philosophy for our overworked, anxious world. Learning the key points can be difficult however, as many stoic philosophers write densely or give good advice in the form of morbid tidbits like, "If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies."
This is where Marcus Aurelius comes in. A Roman emperor, he was given a Stoic education in his youth, wrote extensive notes to himself based on the philosophy, and practiced what he preached to such an extent that he is widely regarded as the best example of a philosopher king.
In his book Meditations, Aurelius writes a series of notes to himself designed to remind himself of key stoic teachings that may come in handy when trying to rule the world. Written in war camps during campaigns against barbarian hordes, it is infinitely more readable than the pure philosophy of other great stoic thinkers. With many aphorisms that are short and snappy and others that relate to issues we've all faced, the wisdom presented here is as understandable as it is practical.
Here are 10 of the best ideas from Meditations, what they mean, and how you can use them to be a bit more philosophical as you deal with life's problems.
If you apply yourself to the task before you, following the right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you, but keeping your divine part pure, as if you might be bound to give it back immediately; if you hold this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with your present activities according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which you utter, you will live happily. And there is no man who is able to prevent this.
The way to happiness, according to Stoics, is keeping up a proper mental state and following the dictates of reason. A quick way to do this is to focus on the moment at hand and accepting whatever you cannot control while reacting to those things properly. This can lead to a lifetime of tranquility for those who try hard enough.
Within 10 days you will seem a God to those to whom you are now a beast and an ape, if you will return to your principals and the worship of reason.
One of the goals of any good Stoic is to act in accordance with reason, that element of the divine that we all possess. Since reason is seen as the path to happiness, virtue, and living well, sticking to it consistently can be expected to have tremendous payoffs.
If he is a stranger to the universe who does not know what is in it, no less is he a stranger who does not know what is going on in it.
Stoicism doesn't treat humans as solitary creatures, despite the urging it gives us to ignore the opinions of others. The Stoics know people are social animals and mandate a healthy level of social and civic participation for everyone.
Failure to observe what is in the mind of another has seldom made a man unhappy; but those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy.
How other people think is outside of our control. Stoicism teaches us that we should, therefore, try to be indifferent to it. However, the workings of our mind are what makes us happy and unhappy and should receive a great deal of our attention.
Are you angry with him whose armpits stink? Are you angry with him whose mouth smells foul? What good will this anger do you? He has such a mouth, he has such armpits: it is necessary that such an emanation must come from such things — but the man has reason, it will be said, and he is able, if he takes pains, to discover wherein he offends. Well then, and you, too, have reason: by your rational faculty stir up his rational faculty; show him his error, admonish him. For if he listens, you will cure him, and there is no need of anger, the stuff of tragic actors and whores.
Even though humans have access to divine reason, sometimes we still make mistakes. The best response to this isn't anger, but rather to appeal to that reason in search of a solution. This Stoic wisdom that we can choose to bypass a negative emotional reaction and use reason instead is part of the basis for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
That which is not good for the swarm is not good for the bee either.
We live as individuals in societies. If society is harmed, how can we not also be harmed? Epictetus, a philosopher who influenced Marcus Aurelius, thought it was vital that we do our duties towards others and not merely withdraw into contemplation and isolation. A good thing to remember when you are the king of the known world.
Do not act as if you will live 10,000 years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.
The Stoic philosophers understood that most people ignore the fact that they are going to die someday. While it is easy to understand why people do this, they saw this as a detriment to our ability to live life now. By coming to grips with the fact of death, we can make better use of life.
Is any man afraid of change? What can take place without change? What then is more pleasing or suitable to the universal nature? And can you take a hot bath unless the wood for the fire undergoes a change? And can you be nourished unless the good undergoes a change? And can anything else that is useful be accomplished without change? Do you not see then that for yourself also to change is just the same, and equally necessary for the universal nature?
The Stoic view of the cosmos leans heavily on the idea of constant change as argued by Heraclitus. Everything in the universe is always in flux. Since this is part of nature, it is nothing to be hung up about. While change can be difficult for us, the Stoic thinkers encourage us to embrace it.
A wrongdoer is often a man who has left something undone, not always one who has done something.
Just because you didn't cause a problem doesn't mean you're in the clear. A dedication to the good often implies the need to do good, not merely the duty to avoid doing wrong. It is always nice when kings remember this.
Begin the morning by saying to yourself, 'I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial.' All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I, who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it I participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly. Nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him. For we are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature and it is acting against one another to be vexed and turned away.
All the principle teachings of Stoicism expressed in one paragraph. Bad things will happen to you, it's life. However, you have the power to overcome these events through reason and the understanding that you can only really be harmed by your own mental processes. All people are similar and should be treated as such. Virtue is to act in accordance with nature, that which is contrary to nature is irrational and causes suffering.
So much for rest in peace.
- Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
- Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
- This study could help better identify time of death.
We're learning more new things about death everyday. Much has been said and theorized about the great divide between life and the Great Beyond. While everyone and every culture has their own philosophies and unique ideas on the subject, we're beginning to learn a lot of new scientific facts about the deceased corporeal form.
An Australian scientist has found that human bodies move for more than a year after being pronounced dead. These findings could have implications for fields as diverse as pathology to criminology.
Dead bodies keep moving
Researcher Alyson Wilson studied and photographed the movements of corpses over a 17 month timeframe. She recently told Agence France Presse about the shocking details of her discovery.
Reportedly, she and her team focused a camera for 17 months at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), taking images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. For the entire 17 month duration, the corpse continually moved.
"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Wilson said.
The researchers mostly expected some kind of movement during the very early stages of decomposition, but Wilson further explained that their continual movement completely surprised the team:
"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out."
During one of the studies, arms that had been next to the body eventually ended up akimbo on their side.
The team's subject was one of the bodies stored at the "body farm," which sits on the outskirts of Sydney. (Wilson took a flight every month to check in on the cadaver.)Her findings were recently published in the journal, Forensic Science International: Synergy.
Implications of the study
The researchers believe that understanding these after death movements and decomposition rate could help better estimate the time of death. Police for example could benefit from this as they'd be able to give a timeframe to missing persons and link that up with an unidentified corpse. According to the team:
"Understanding decomposition rates for a human donor in the Australian environment is important for police, forensic anthropologists, and pathologists for the estimation of PMI to assist with the identification of unknown victims, as well as the investigation of criminal activity."
While scientists haven't found any evidence of necromancy. . . the discovery remains a curious new understanding about what happens with the body after we die.
The distances between the stars are so vast that they can make your brain melt. Take for example the Voyager 1 probe, which has been traveling at 35,000 miles per hour for more than 40 years and was the first human object to cross into interstellar space. That sounds wonderful except, at its current speed, it will still take another 40,000 years to cross the typical distance between stars.
Worse still, if you are thinking about interstellar travel, nature provides a hard limit on acceleration and speed. As Einstein showed, it's impossible to accelerate any massive object beyond the speed of light. Since the galaxy is more than 100,000 light-years across, if you are traveling at less than light speed, then most interstellar distances would take more than a human lifetime to cross. If the known laws of physics hold, then it seems a galaxy-spanning human civilization is impossible.
Unless of course you can build a warp drive.
Ah, the warp drive, that darling of science fiction plot devices. So, what about a warp drive? Is that even a really a thing?
Let's start with the "warping" part of a warp drive. Without doubt, Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity ("GR") represents space and time as a 4-dimensional "fabric" that can be stretched and bent and folded. Gravity waves, representing ripples in the fabric of spacetime, have now been directly observed. So, yes spacetime can be warped. The warping part of a warp drive usually means distorting the shape of spacetime so that two distant locations can be brought close together — and you somehow "jump" between them.
This was a basic idea in science fiction long before Star Trek popularized the name "warp drive." But until 1994, it had remained science fiction, meaning there was no science behind it. That year, Miguel Alcubierre wrote down a solution to the basic equations of GR that represented a region that compressed spacetime ahead of it and expanded spacetime behind to create a kind of traveling warp bubble. This was really good news for warp drive fans.
The problems with a warp drive
There were some problems though. Most important was that this "Alcubierre drive" required lots of "exotic matter" or "negative energy" to work. Unfortunately, there's no such thing. These are things theorists dreamed up to stick into the GR equations in order to do cool things like make stable open wormholes or functioning warp drives.
It's also noteworthy that researchers have raised other concerns about an Alcubierre drive — like how it would violate quantum mechanics or how when you arrived at your destination it would destroy everything in front of the ship in an apocalyptic flash of radiation.
Warp drives: A new hope
Credit: Primada / 420366373 via Adobe Stock
Recently, however, there seemed to be good news on the warp drive front with the publication this April of a new paper by Alexey Bobrick and Gianni Martre entitled "Introducing Physical Warp Drives." The good thing about the Bobrick and Martre paper was it was extremely clear about the meaning of a warp drive.
Understanding the equations of GR means understanding what's on either side of the equals sign. On one side, there is the shape of spacetime, and on the other, there is the configuration of matter-energy. The traditional route with these equations is to start with a configuration of matter-energy and see what shape of spacetime it produces. But you can also go the other way around and assume the shape of spacetime you want (like a warp bubble) and determine what kind of configuration of matter-energy you will need (even if that matter-energy is the dream stuff of negative energy).
Warp drives are simpler and much less mysterious objects than the broader literature has suggested.
What Bobrick and Martre did was step back and look at the problem more generally. They showed how all warp drives were composed of three regions: an interior spacetime called the passenger space; a shell of material, with either positive or negative energy, called the warping region; and an outside that, far enough away, looks like normal unwarped spacetime. In this way they could see exactly what was and was not possible for any kind of warp drive. (Watch this lovely explainer by Sabine Hossenfelder for more details). They even showed that you could use good old normal matter to create a warp drive that, while it moved slower than light speed, produced a passenger area where time flowed at a different rate than in the outside spacetime. So even though it was a sub-light speed device, it was still an actual warp drive that could use normal matter.
That was the good news.
The bad news was this clear vision also showed them a real problem with the "drive" part of the Alcubierre drive. First of all, it still needed negative energy to work, so that bummer remains. But worse, Bobrick and Martre reaffirmed a basic understanding of relativity and saw that there was no way to accelerate an Alcubierre drive past light speed. Sure, you could just assume that you started with something moving faster than light, and the Alcubierre drive with its negative energy shell would make sense. But crossing the speed of light barrier was still prohibited.
So, in the end, the Star Trek version of the warp drive is still not a thing. I know this may bum you out if you were hoping to build that version of the Enterprise sometime soon (as I was). But don't be too despondent. The Bobrick and Martre paper really did make headway. As the authors put it in the end:
"One of the main conclusions of our study is that warp drives are simpler and much less mysterious objects than the broader literature has suggested"
That really is progress.
The Black Death wasn't the only plague in the 1300s.
- In a unique study, researchers have determined how many people in medieval England had bunions
- A fashion trend towards pointed toe shoes made the affliction common.
- Even monks got in on the trend, much to their discomfort later in life.
Late Medieval England had its share of problems. The Wars of Roses raged, the Black Death killed off large parts of the population, and passing ruffians could say "Ni" at will to old ladies.
To make matters worse, a first of its kind study published in the International Journal of Paleopathology has demonstrated that much of the population suffered from another plague — a plague of bunions likely caused by a ridiculous medieval fashion trend.
If the shoe fits, it won't cause bunions
The outlines of a leather shoe from the King's Ditch, Cambridge. It is easy to see how these shoes might be constricting. Copyright Cambridge Archaeological Unit.
The bunion, known to medicine as "hallux valgus," is a deformity of the joint connecting the big toe to the rest of the foot. It is painful and can cause other issues including poor balance. The condition is associated with having worn constrictive shoes for a long period of time as well as genetic factors. Today, it is often caused by wearing high heeled shoes.
The medieval English didn't care for high heeled shoes as much as modern fashionistas, but there was a major fashion trend toward shoes with long, pointed toes called "poulaines" or "crakows" for their supposed place of origin, Krakow, Poland.
This trend, already silly-looking to a modern observer, got out of hand in a hurry. According to some records, the points on nobleman's shoes could be so long as to require tying them to the leg with string so the wearer could walk. At one point, King Edward IV had to ban commoners from wearing points longer than two inches. A couple years later, he saw fit to ban the shoes altogether.
But, just knowing that people back in the day made poor fashion choices doesn't prove they suffered for it. That is where digging up old skeletons to look at their feet comes in.
Beauty is pain: the price of high medieval fashion
To learn how bad the bunion epidemic was, the researchers looked to four burial sites in and around Cambridge. One was a rural cemetery where poor peasants were buried. Another was the All Saints by the Castle parish, which had a mixed collection of people that tended toward poverty. The Hospital of St. John's burial ground contained both the poor charges of a charity hospital and wealthy benefactors. Lastly, they considered the cemetery of a local Augustinian friary, home to monks and well-to-do philanthropists.
The team considered 177 adult skeletons that were at least a quarter complete and still had enough of their feet to make studying them possible. The remains were classified by age and sex by observation and DNA testing. Each was examined for evidence of bunions and signs of complications from the condition, such as falling.
Those buried in the monastery's graveyard were the most affected. Nearly half, 43 percent, of the remains found there had bunions. This includes five of the eleven members of the clergy they found. Twenty-three percent of those laid to rest at the Hospital of St. John had bunions, though only 10 percent of those at the All Saints by the Castle parish graveyard did.
The rural cemetery had a much lower rate of instances, only three percent, suggesting that these peasants were able to avoid at least one plague.
Overall, eighteen percent of the individuals examined had bunions, with men more likely to have them than women. Those at cemeteries known for exclusivity were more likely to have them as well, though it is clear that the condition also affected members of other classes. This makes sense, as it is known that these shoes had mass appeal.
The authors note that the rural cemetery having fewer cases is partly because that cemetery "went out of use prior to the wide adoption of pointed shoes, and it is likely that those residing in the parish predominately wore soft leather shoes, or possibly went barefoot."
Those skeletons with evidence of bunions were more likely to have fractures indicative of a fall. This was more common on those estimated or recorded as having lived past age 45.
In our much more enlightened times, 23 percent of the population currently endures having bunions, most of them women, and one of the leading culprits behind this is the high heeled shoe.
Some things never change.