Selections from “The Emperor’s Handbook”


by Marcus Aurelius,
trans. Scott and David Hicks

Never forget that the universe is a single living organism possessed of one substance and one soul, holding all things suspended in a single consciousness and creating all things with a single purpose that they might work together spinning and weaving and knotting whatever comes to pass. (4, 40)

I am formed out of two elements: the causal and the material. Neither of these will be reduced to nothingness when I am dead, just as neither came out of nothingness when I was born. It follows that each part of me will someday be transformed into a part of the universe, and that part will be later transformed into another part, and so on forever. In just this way, I came into being, as did my parents and their parents and all those who came before them. Nothing contradicts this theory, even if the universe is organized in finite periods. (5, 13)

You have searched everywhere, and in all your wanderings you have not found happiness – not in clever arguments, nor in wealth, fame, pleasure, or anything else. Where is happiness then? In doing what a man’s nature requires. And how will you do this? By basing your actions and desires on sound principles. What principles? Principles that distinguish right from wrong and demonstrate that nothing is good for a man unless it helps him to be just, responsible, courageous, and free, while nothing is bad that fails to produce the opposite result. (8, 1)

Build your life one action at a time, and be happy if each act you perform contributes to a fulfilling and complete life. No one can prevent you from doing this. “But what if some outside circumstance stands in my way?” Not even that can stop you from acting justly, wisely, and reasonably. “But it may block me from doing something I want to do.” Yes but by welcoming the obstacle and by calmly adapting your action to it, you will be able to do something else in harmony with your goals and with the sort of life you are seeking to build. (8, 32)

If you’re troubled by something outside yourself, it isn’t the thing itself that bothers you, but your opinion of it, and this opinion you have the power to revoke immediately. If what troubles you arises from some flaw in your character or disposition, who prevents you from correcting the flaw? If it’s your failure to do some good or necessary work that frustrates you, why not put your energy into doing it rather than fretting about it? “But something stronger than I prevents me.” Then don’t worry. It isn’t your responsibility to do what you lack the power to do. “But if it isn’t done, life isn’t worth living.” Then quit this life in peace, as one who dies full of good works and forgiveness for those who oppose him. (8, 47)

Treat with utmost respect your power of forming opinions, for this power alone guards you against making assumptions that are contrary to nature and judgments that overthrow the rule of reason. It enables you to learn from experience, to live in harmony with others, and to walk in the way of the gods. (3, 9)

Don’t be disgusted with yourself, lose patience, or give up if you sometimes fail to act as your philosophy dictates, but after each setback, return to reason and be content if most of your acts are worthy of a good man. Love the philosophy to which you return, and go back to it, not as an unruly student to the rod of a school-master, but as a sore eye to a sponge and egg whites, or a wound to cleansing ointments and clean bandages. I n this way, you will obey the voice of reason not to parade a perfect record, but to secure an inner peace. Remember, philosophy desires only what pleases your nature while you wanted something at odds with nature. “Precisely, doesn’t it all come down to what pleases me most?” Yes, it does, but be careful. This is just the argument pleasure uses to trick most people. Ask yourself – what could possibly please you more than to be great-souled, free, nature, gentle, and devout? And what is more pleasing than practical wisdom when you consider the reliability and efficiency of knowledge and understanding in every situation? (5, 9)

Develop your own methods for observing how all things are in a continual state of change, one into another. Be ready, and welcome it when it is your turn to experience change, for there is nothing like it to heighten your sensibilities and elevate your mind. At the moment of change, a man’s soul takes flight, and being in this instant reminded that he will soon be called upon to leave the world of things and the company of men, he devotes himself wholeheartedly to justice in whatever he does and to nature in whatever is done to him. His mind is no longer troubled by what someone may say or think about him, or do against him; and he finds perfect contentment in these two things only; to do the task at hand justly and to embrace his fate gladly. Throwing off all other considerations and schemes, his one ambition is to run the straight race marked out by the law, in pursuit of the swift-footed gods, who never leave this sure course. (10, 11)

It is within your power, always and everywhere, to be content with what the gods have given you, to deal justly with people as you find them, and to guard your thoughts against the intrusion of untested or inchoate ideas. (7, 54)

After curing many illnesses, Hippocrates became ill himself and died. The Chaldean astrologers predicted the deaths of many before their own fatal hours struck. Alexander, Pompey, and Julius Caesar sacked and ruined countless cities and maimed and slaughtered untold thousands of soldiers and horses, and then they too departed this life. Heraclitus, after endless speculation on the destruction of the universe by fire, drowned in his own juices, plastered with cow dung. Lice got the better of Democritus, and vermin of another sort killed Socrates.

So what’s the point of it all? Simply this. You embarked; you sailed; you landed. Now, disembark! If it is to start a new life, you will find the gods there too. If it is to lose all consciousness, you will be liberated from the tyranny of pleasure and pain and from your bondage to an earthly shell that is vastly inferior to the master contained in it. For the spirit is intelligent and godlike whereas the body is blood and dust. (3, 3)

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