“Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, at the seashore, and in the mountains; and you tend to desire such things very much. But this is a characteristic of the most common sort of men, for it is in your power whenever you will to choose to retreat into yourself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retreat than into his own soul, particularly when he has within him such thoughts that by looking into them he is immediately perfectly tranquil; and I affirm that tranquillity is nothing other than the proper ordering of the mind.
Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.
How much trouble he avoids who does not look to see what his neighbor says or does or thinks, but only to what he does himself, that it may be just and pure; or as Agathon says, do not consider the depraved morals of others, but cling to the straight and narrow path without deviating from it.
He who has a powerful desire for posthumous fame does not consider that every one of those who remember him will himself also die very soon; then again also they who have succeeded them, until the whole remembrance shall have been extinguished as it is transmitted through men who foolishly admire and then perish. But suppose that those who will remember are even immortal, and that the remembrance will be immortal, what good will this do you?
Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too.”
From Book Four of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.
A good friend from college, MS, often carries The Meditations in his backpack or back pocket, occasionally glancing at the thin and worn volume whenever he has a spare minute. On a lazy day last Spring, I asked him about the book, and he handed it to me, directing my attention to several dog-eared pages and marked passages — words that are nearly flawless in their logic and stoicism.
It’s impressive that Marcus Aurelius wrote The Meditations in his spare time. He was a statesmen; his philosophical reflections — which espouse self-discipline, virtue, and ethical reflection — came from private moments which he snatched away from a public life. He wrote this in the year 167 CE.
Marcus Aurelius’s understanding of posterity, of the uselessness of being remembered beyond death by men who will themselves die, calls to mind C.S. Lewis’s crisp observation that, “All that is not eternal is eternally useless.”
I especially like the final sentence which analogizes time as a river. It was echoed some eighteen centuries later in Borges’s unforgettable line:
“Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river…”
Note: I haven’t been writing anything original for this blog for the past week or so, and that’s because I’ve been swamped with writing work for my day job (as a grad student). So recently I’ve just been putting quotes and commentary on here. I apologize for this: at least for now you’re stuck with the words of much greater men.