When you have failed, return back again, and be content if the greater part of what you do is consistent with man’s nature, and love this to which you return.
I am A Man of Letters. I’ve been reading lately, and I have found some words I would like to share. Today, The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. As a boy, Marcus Aurelius slept on the ground instead of a bed, as was the tradition of philosophers. Here are The Meditations Book Five, Parts Five through Ten.
You say, Men cannot admire the sharpness of your wits. Be it so. But there are many other things of which you cannot say, because I am not formed for them by nature. Show those qualities which are altogether in your power: sincerity, gravity, endurance of labor, aversion to pleasure, contentment with your portion and with few things, benevolence, frankness, no love of superfluity, freedom from trifling, magnanimity. See how many qualities you are immediately able to exhibit, in which there is no excuse of natural incapacity and unfitness. And yet you still remain, voluntarily, below the mark. Or are you compelled through being defectively furnished by nature to murmur, and to be stingy, and to flatter, and to find fault with your poor body, and to try to please men, and to make great displays, and to be so restless in your mind? No, by the gods! You might have been delivered from these things long ago. If in truth you can be charged with being rather slow and dull of comprehension, you must exert yourself about this also, not neglecting it nor yet taking pleasure in your dullness.
One man, when he has done a service to another, is ready to set it down to his account as a favor conferred. Another is not ready to do this, but still in his own mind he thinks of the man as his debtor, and he knows what he has done. A third in a manner does not even know what he has done, but he is like a vine which has produced grapes, and seeks for nothing more after it has once produced its proper fruit. As a horse when he has run, a dog when he has tracked the game, as a bee when it has made the honey, so a man when he has done a good act, does not call out for others to come and see, but he goes on to another act, as a vine goes on to produce again the grapes in season. ‘Must a man then be one of these, who in a manner act thus without observing it?’ Yes. ‘But it is necessary to observe what a man is doing: for it is characteristic of the social animal to perceive that he is working in a social manner, and indeed to wish that his social partner also should perceive it.’ It is true what you say, but you do not rightly understand what is now said. For this reason you will become one of those of whom I spoke before, for even they are misled by a certain show of reason. If you will choose to understand the meaning of what is said, do not fear that for this reason you will omit any social act.
A prayer of the Athenians: ‘Rain, rain, O dear Zeus, down on the ploughed fields of the Athenians and on the plains.’ In truth we ought not to pray at all, or we ought to pray in this simple and noble fashion.
Just as we must understand when it is said that Aesculapius prescribed to this man horse-exercise, or bathing in cold water, or going without shoes, so we must understand it when it is said that the nature of the universe prescribed to this man disease, or mutilation, or loss, or anything else of the kind. For in the first case ‘prescribed’ means something like this: he prescribed this for this man as a thing adapted to procure health; and in the second case it means that which happens to [or suits] every man is fixed in a manner for him suitably to his destiny. This is what we mean when we say that things are suitable to us, as the workmen say of squared stones in walls or the pyramids, that they are suitable, when they fit them one to one another in some kind of connection. For there is altogether one fitness, [one harmony]. And as the universe is made up out of all bodies to be such a body as it is, so out of all existing causes destiny is made up to be such a cause as it is. Even those who are completely ignorant understand what I mean; for they say, ‘it was destiny which brought this to such a person.’ This then was brought and this was prescribed to him. Let us then receive these things, as well as those which Aesculapius prescribes. Many among his prescriptions as a matter of course are disagreeable, but we accept them in the hope of health. Let the perfecting and accomplishment of the things which the common nature judges to be good, be judged by you to be of the same kind as your health. Accept everything which happens, even if it seem disagreeable, because it leads to this: to the health of the universe and to the prosperity and felicity of Zeus. For He would not have brought on any man what He has brought if it were not useful for the whole. Neither does the nature of anything, whatever it may be, cause anything which is not suitable to that which is directed by it. For two reasons it is right to be content with that which happens to you. First, because it was done for you and prescribed for you, and in a manner had reference to you, originally from the most ancient causes spun with your destiny. Second, because that which comes to every man comes to the power which administers the universe, as a cause of felicity and perfection, nay even of its very continuance. For the integrity of the whole is mutilated, if you cut off anything whatever from the conjunction and the continuity either of the parts or of the causes. And you do cut off, as far as it is in your power, when you are dissatisfied, and in a manner try to put anything out of the way.
Be not disgusted, nor discouraged, nor dissatisfied, if you do not succeed in doing everything according to right principles. When you have failed, return back again, and be content if the greater part of what you do is consistent with man’s nature, and love this to which you return. Do not return to philosophy as if she were a master, but act like those who have sore eyes and apply a bit of sponge and egg, or as another applies a plaster, or drenching with water. For thus you will not fail to obey reason, and you will rest in it. Remember that philosophy requires only the things which your nature requires. You would have something else which is not according to nature. It may be objected, ‘Why, what is more agreeable than this [which I am doing]?’ But is not this the very reason why pleasure deceives us? Consider if magnanimity, freedom, simplicity, equanimity, piety, are not more agreeable. What is more agreeable than wisdom itself when you think of the security and the happy course of all things which depend on the faculty of understanding and knowledge?
Things are in such a kind of envelopment that they have seemed to philosophers, not a few nor those common philosophers, altogether unintelligible. Even to the Stoics themselves they seem difficult to understand. All our assent is changeable, for where is the man who never changes? Carry your thoughts then to the objects themselves, and consider how short-lived they are and worthless, and that they may be in the possession of a filthy wretch or a robber. Then turn to the morals of those who live with you and it is hardly possible to endure even the most agreeable of them, to say nothing of a man being hardly able to endure himself. In such darkness then, and dirt, and in so constant a flux both of substance and of time, and of motion and of things moved, what there is worth being highly prized, or even an object of serious pursuit, I cannot imagine. On the contrary it is a man’s duty to comfort himself, and to wait for the natural dissolution, and not to be vexed at the delay, but to rest in these principles only: one, that nothing will happen to me which is not conformable to the nature of the universe; and two, that it is in my power never to act contrary to my god and my daemon: for there is no man who will compel me to this.
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Until I return, I am… A Man of Letters.
Ruth Etting – March Winds and April Showers (1935)