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Meditations | Main Ideas

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Nature and Universe

The philosophy Aurelius repeatedly reminds himself of throughout Meditations is that nature is at the foundation of all life—human and animal. As such, it is an ongoing manifestation of the universe (Fate, Providence, or God), but in specific instances, it is also transient and temporary. An individual (prince or pauper) lives for a short period, but humanity goes on. The trick is to discern which of these two principles is in action for any given condition. Being able to do this is, for Aurelius, the key to making sure he is acting according to his own nature, leaving others to act according to theirs as allotted to them by the universe.

Transience of Life

Emperor Aurelius spent most of his time and energy on battlefields far from the comforts of his own home and Roman society. He experienced years of watching men fight, suffer mentally and physically, and die. He struggled to put aside his own desires for the sake of duty, as he reminded himself that life is not given to simply be thrown away while seeking gratification.

Aurelius's experience with facing death informs the Meditations. All 12 books of the text are rich with references to the brief conditions, whether desirable or undesirable, contained in a person's span of life. He constantly reminds himself of all the people who had been rich, famous, and powerful in their time, but now have succumbed to death. For example, in Book 7, he says, "Consider yourself to be dead, and to have completed your life up to the present time; and live, according to nature, the remainder that is allowed you."

Parts and Whole

The relationship between the parts and the whole of a system was very much a concern of the Stoics, and the philosophy upon which particularly the Roman Stoics based their ideas. Later considerations of modern philosophy (mainly German) would return to this in a different way, but Aurelius examines this here as a means of determining the truth of nature as directed by a greater—possibly creative—power of Providence or the universe. The concert of the individual relative to his society is another view, suggesting a symmetrical unity of reiteration between groupings of units—the idea behind the classical geometry of the Greeks.

Simplicity versus Ostentation

Aurelius evidently struggled with his desire to enjoy the benefits of being emperor of Rome, but he counters this with practical restraint, and reminds himself of previous emperors who overindulged themselves. Even "good" and powerful men like Alexander the Great seem to have everything, but in order to keep it, must spend time and energy slaving away in constant worry. By contrast, those philosophers who have command only of themselves, and who take the time and effort to master their own disciplines of mind, body, and soul, possess the only thing that will last: intelligence. The attainment of such a balance is the only way to counteract the need to avoid pain and suffering, and the need to pursue pleasure and happiness. Book 12 concludes with the phrase, "Depart then satisfied."

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