It’s All On You

I

“Thou wilt soon die, and thou art not yet simple, not free from perturbations, nor without suspicion of being hurt by external things, nor kindly disposed towards all; nor dost thou yet place wisdom only in acting justly.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.37

This meditation is a perfect opportunity to remind all of you that this is a journal, and Marcus is speaking to himself.

“Thou wilt die soon…” He’s talking about himself, Marcus is addressing Marcus, and he’s reprimanding him fairly sternly.

“…and thou art not yet simple, not yet free from perturbation.”

Marcus, you’re still complicating things, you’re still allowing externals to sway to, to move you around, to jostle you, to rustle your jimmies. 

“…nor without suspicion of being hurt by external things.”

You’re still fearing those indifferent externals, and you’re allowing them to corrupt your character. You’re allowing things you cannot control to control you.

“…nor kindly disposed towards all…”

We’re meant to work together, like the rows of teeth, upper and lower, but here you are, Marcus, not behaving that way. You’re preaching but you’re not practicing.

“…nor dost thou yet place wisdom only in acting Justly.”

And the greatest trespass of all, Marcus, last of the five good emperors, you’ve forgotten that Justice is perhaps the greatest projection of Wisdom, for Justice encompasses all that is “acting appropriately”—you’re not acting appropriately, Marcus, you’re falling short.

Marcus was a special man, and in no meditation is that clearer than this one. He’s the Emperor of Rome, he can get away with anything, he can oppress his people, he can wage war, he can kill indiscriminately, he can behave like tyrannical dictator, and yet here he is, trying to become a better person. How many Roman emperors, indeed how many great and powerful men of the ancient world were focused in any significant capacity on bettering the self? This is a kind of inward self-reflection uncommon in the Western world during this period of time, and it would remain uncommon for millennia more! Marcus is giving himself the business, almost calling himself a hippocrite when he laments that he’s still perturbed, he still acts unjustly, he still acts unkindly, he still isn’t wise….

And there’s a sense of urgency in the writing, perhaps even a sense of fear. 

“Thou wilt die soon…” he’s running out of time, he’s not happy with his practice. This is book four, we’re nearly 100 meditations into the Meditations, and who knows how many days or years in Marcus’s timeline. I mean he’s in his 50s! This is likely around 175AD, and Marcus dies in 180AD, so he’s not wrong when he says he’s going to die soon. He’ probably not aware of his actual likely time of death, he was probably speaking broadly, in alignment with the idea that we don’t know when we will die and no matter when we die it is soon in the grand scheme of infinite time. 

You’re not an emperor with near limitless power and authority over millions of people, you’re just Dave or Jessica, a random human being who probably burned the toast the made this morning or who dribbles food down your shirt whenever you eat a hamburger or hotdog, if Marcus is in his 50s still struggling with this, what hope do you have to be a better Stoic?

Well I’ve got good news for you, you have exactly the same hopes. Exactly the same. 

It’s not your position in life, or your control over people as a person in political power, that determines how good a person you can become. Anyone, at any rung of the socioeconomic ladder or power hierarchy can look inward and say, “Well, damn, this isn’t how I want to be. I want to be better than how I currently am.” 

And you could argue that for someone like you (and I include myself in this), who is undoubtedly far less busy, under far less under pressure, and far less important (in relative terms) than the emperor of the entire Roman Empire, would have an easier time becoming something different than what they are today than would someone like Marcus Aurelius. Marcus might well have, in changing his behavior, changed the course of the lives of millions… you just have to stop spending 3-hours doom-scrolling through TikTok when you’re trying to go to sleep at night and you’ll get more rest. 

“Thou wilt die soon, and thou art not yet simple…”

How challenging do you imagine it is to cultivate a simple life, lived simply, prioritizing wisdom and justice when you’re the emperor of the whole of the Roman Empire? Arguably far less simple than it is for us to spend 15-minutes a day journaling or 20-minutes a day going for a run, or a walk, or doing 20 jumping jacks and 20 push-ups. I mean, Marcus had to work on being a good Stoic while running an empire, which was no doubt exhausting… the idea that you and I would have a more difficult challenge finding the spare time to work on ourselves is patently ridiculous. Even if we have three kids and two jobs, there’s time in there somewhere, there’s an an extra hour to be found in going to be later or waking up earlier, or cutting something out of our lives that isn’t as important as developing Virtuous characters right?

So yesterday Eric told you you needed a resolute resolution. Let me do my best to tell you, even though Eric would tell me I couldn’t, what that resolute resolution ought to be—and I’ll even contradict my opening statements by saying this, but I don’t care, I think I’ve realized how true it is just in working through this meditation with you this morning:

Your resolute resolution is to find time to be better. You define how you’re going to be better, you define what that means, but goddammit, you’ve got to find the time to do because being better, becoming a good and virtuous person is not going to just happen to you—it doesn’t just happen to anyone—it’s something you have to actively work to do… so actively work to do it, or die, whenever that is, having never become better than you are right this moment which, to be sure, isn’t the best version of yourself you could be. And this isn’t an attack, this isn’t me shaming you into action, don’t assent to that impression—this is me telling you, as clearly as I possibly can, that you have, I have, we have, work to do to realize our full potential as virtuous human beings who are a boon to the world around us. 

So, again, happy new year; now go get after it. Go get after your virtuous character—no one else can do it for you. And if you need a kick in the pants, to get started, well, I do this podcast every day of the week for a reason. Start your day with 8-10 minutes of Stoic listening, that’ll get you in the right headspace and then you’ll be primed to pay mind to your practice as you start your day.

That’s what I’m here for.

About the author

Tanner Campbell

Hi, I'm Tanner. I spend most of my time writing in the philosophy space and I'm the host of the Practical Stoicism podcast. When I'm not writing, I'm reading or recording. In rare moments when I'm not writing, reading, or recording, I'm spending time with my partner and our dogs.

Add comment