Marcus Aurelius on Politics

While reading through a new copy of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius today, I ran into a passage where Marcus actually talks a little bit about politics, along with some other interesting ideas.

I thought the passage had a lot of good stuff in it, so I decided to try and do a break down of what it says. The passage is packed with a variety topics and ideas, so I decided to compare a few different translations that I own to help me understand what Marcus might actually be saying here. These are simply my own thoughts on the matter, I am no expert.

Meditations 9.29 translated by George Long

The universal cause is like a winter torrent: it carries everything along with it. But how worthless are all these poor people who are engaged in matters political, and, as they suppose, are playing the philosopher! All drivellers.

Well then, man: do what nature now requires. Set thyself in motion, if it is in thy power, and do not look about thee to see if any one will observe it; nor yet expect Plato’s Republic: but be content if the smallest thing goes on well, and consider such an event to be no small matter.

For who can change men’s opinions? And without a change of opinions what else is there than the slavery of men who groan while they pretend to obey?

Come now and tell me of Alexander and Philip and Demetrius of Phalerum. They themselves shall judge whether they discovered what the common nature required, and trained themselves accordingly. But if they acted like tragedy heroes, no one has condemned me to imitate them.

Simple and modest is the work of philosophy. Draw me not aside to indolence and pride.

Meditations 9.29 translated by Robin Hard

The universal cause is a rushing torrent; it carries all things in its stream. How cheap are these creatures who turn to public affairs and, as they fondly imagine, act a philosopher’s part; like snotty children, one and all!

Tell me, my friend, what are you to do? Do what nature demands of you at this very moment. So set to work, if you are able, and do not look around you to see if anyone will notice. You should not hope for Plato’s ideal state, but be satisfied to make even the smallest advance, and regard such an outcome as nothing contemptible.

For who can change the convictions of others? And without that change of conviction, what else is there other than slavery of people who grumble away while making a show of obedience?

Go on, then, and talk to me of Alexander and Philip and Demetrius of Phalerum. If they saw what universal nature wishes and trained themselves accordingly, I will follow them; but if they merely strutted around like stage heroes, no one has condemned me to imitate them.

The work of philosophy is simple and modest; do not seduce me into vain ostentation.

Meditations 9.29 translated by Gregory Hays

The design of the world is like a flood, sweeping all before it. The foolishness of them-little men busy with affairs of state, with philosophy-or what they think of as philosophy. Nothing but phlegm and mucus.

-Well, then what? Do what nature demands. Get a move on-if you have it in you-and don’t worry whether anyone will give you credit for it. And don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic; be satisfied with even the smallest progress, and treat the outcome of it all as unimportant.

Who can change their minds? And without that change, what is there but groaning, slavery, a pretense of obedience?

Go on and cite Alexander, Philip, Demetrius of Phalerum. Whether they knew nature’s will and made themselves its student is for them to say. And if they preferred to play the king? Well, no one forced me to be their understudy.

The task of philosophy is modest and straightforward. Do not tempt me to presumption.

Breakdown

I am going to try to break down each part and summarize what I think Marucs is saying to himself here. The following marks will be used to indicate which translation came from which author.

GL – George Long | RH – Robin Hard | GH – Gregory Hays

The Universe

GL: The universal cause is like a winter torrent: it carries everything along with it.

RH: The universal cause is a rushing torrent; it carries all things in its stream.

GH: The design of the world is like a flood, sweeping all before it.

The universe is ruled by causality. Just as a rushing river or flood picks everything up and carries all away with it, so does the universe pick us up and carry us away with it, inside the never ending chain of cause and effect.

Politicians

GL: But how worthless are all these poor people who are engaged in matters political, and, as they suppose, are playing the philosopher! All drivellers.

RH: How cheap are these creatures who turn to public affairs and, as they fondly imagine, act a philosopher’s part; like snotty children, one and all!

GH: The foolishness of them-little men busy with affairs of state, with philosophy-or what they think of as philosophy. Nothing but phlegm and mucus.

These politicians, who are engaged in affairs of the state simply pretend to be philosophers themselves (back then philosophy was considered to be a way of living, not necessarily an academic pursuit, as many philosophies at that time considered virtue to be a key component of a good life).

The politicians do not realize the true nature of the universe, that to flourish they must act with virtue, they are  fools in this matter.

I think it is important to point out that Marucs is not saying that we should disengage from politics. Stoicism is largely a philosophy of action, and many Stoics in ancient time were indeed involved in politics, since it was through politics that they could make life better for themselves and others.

I think that Marcus is simply railing against these specific politicians that he has in mind who behave in this seemingly foolish way, pretending to be virtuous philosophers when they are not. Marcus himself probably had to deal with a lot of people like this as Emperor, which is why he is writing about it.

Do What You Can

GL: Well then, man: do what nature now requires. Set thyself in motion, if it is in thy power, and do not look about thee to see if any one will observe it; nor yet expect Plato’s Republic: but be content if the smallest thing goes on well, and consider such an event to be no small matter.

RH: Tell me, my friend, what are you to do? Do what nature demands of you at this very moment. So set to work, if you are able, and do not look around you to see if anyone will notice. You should not hope for Plato’s ideal state, but be satisfied to make even the smallest advance, and regard such an outcome as nothing contemptible.

GH: -Well, then what? Do what nature demands. Get a move on-if you have it in you-and don’t worry whether anyone will give you credit for it. And don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic; be satisfied with even the smallest progress, and treat the outcome of it all as unimportant.

Even if you must deal with politicians like that, you must do what nature demands of you (By nature Marcus means your best nature as a person, not your base animal nature. Your best nature is essentially acting with excellent character, or virtue).

You should act with virtue and do what is right, even if nobody is looking, even if you never get credit for it.

And do not be upset if your actions do not bring about Plato’s Republic (a Utopia), but be glad to even affect a small change in a positive direction. That positive action by itself is no small thing.

Focus on your actions, and not necessarily the final outcome, since what ends up happening is not fully within your control. All you can do it take what actions that you believe to be correct, with virtue as your guidepost.

Convictions of Others

GL: For who can change men’s opinions? And without a change of opinions what else is there than the slavery of men who groan while they pretend to obey?

RH: For who can change the convictions of others? And without that change of conviction, what else is there other than slavery of people who grumble away while making a show of obedience?

GH: Who can change their minds? And without that change, what is there but groaning, slavery, a pretense of obedience?

You cannot simply change the convictions and opinions of others. Only your actions are truly under your control, not the minds of other people.

And of those who act in opposition to their convictions, in obedience to another, there is only grumbling, slavery, and a surface showing of obedience. You should act according to your convictions not against them.

I think that Marcus again, is talking about the Politicians here, who simply make a show of obedience to him. I believe he is reminding himself that he cannot simply change their minds, but he should take what actions he believes to be right anyways.

Acting Like Others

GL: Come now and tell me of Alexander and Philip and Demetrius of Phalerum. They themselves shall judge whether they discovered what the common nature required, and trained themselves accordingly. But if they acted like tragedy heroes, no one has condemned me to imitate them.

RH: Go on, then, and talk to me of Alexander and Philip and Demetrius of Phalerum. If they saw what universal nature wishes and trained themselves accordingly, I will follow them; but if they merely strutted around like stage heroes, no one has condemned me to imitate them.

GH: Go on and cite Alexander, Philip, Demetrius of Phalerum. Whether they knew nature’s will and made themselves its student is for them to say. And if they preferred to play the king? Well, no one forced me to be their understudy.

You can tell me all about other supposedly great leaders of the past, only they can truly know if they had virtue in mind and acted accordingly. However, if it is true that they only pretended to be this way, I am not forced to behave in the same way that they did, even if others believe that they were great. I can act in accordance with virtue myself regardless of what others do.

How to Live

GL: Simple and modest is the work of philosophy. Draw me not aside to indolence and pride.

RH: The work of philosophy is simple and modest; do not seduce me into vain ostentation.

GH: The task of philosophy is modest and straightforward. Do not tempt me to presumption.

The task of philosophy it to teach us how to be virtuous life. It is a simple and modest way of life. There is no need for pride, laziness, or an excessive displays of wealth and luxury. This was probably a very important reminder for Marcus, considering he was Roman Emperor at the time.

Conclusion

A quick summary of what Marucs is saying overall in this passage would be:

  • Remember that the universe is change, and that we are a part of that change.
  • Regardless of who you have to deal with and what they think, act virtuously, do what is right. It does not matter if nobody sees you do it, or you receive no credit for it.
  • You will more than likely not be able to bring about a perfect outcome, but you must act anyways. Even a small change in the right direction is significant.
  • You do not have to act like your predecessors simply because others deem  them to be great. Act with virtue regardless of what others have done or said before. If you do find a good role model though, you should follow that path as well.
  • The task of philosophy is to live a modest, straightforward, and virtuous life. Do not be tempted by pride, laziness, or excess. These things do not lead you to the good life.

I thought that overall this passage had much to say, and I found a lot of insightful ideas in it. Breaking it down, line by line like this, helped me to get a better understand of what Marcus was saying here, and forced me to think about how I might apply these ideas to my own life.

Hopefully you found that analysis of the passage insightful. If anything, maybe it helped you decide which translation of Meditations you would like to read most!

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