Marcus Aurelius’ Ten “Commandments” to Himself
Here is a practical way to become a better human being, starting now
Stoicism is a type of virtue ethics. As such, the focus is on the improvement of one’s character, not on telling others what to do or not to do. One of the best examples of practice of virtue ethics is Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, written as a personal philosophical diary in which the emperor-philosopher repeatedly “preaches” to himself (the best kind of preaching!), in order to correct his own character while striving to become a better human being.
A particularly powerful passage in the Meditations is section 18 of book 11, to which I devote this essay. The translation I am using is the excellent one by Robin Hard (Oxford World’s Classics), but several of those in the public domain are also very good (like this one, by George Long). There is also a very informative annotated version by Robin Waterfield.
First, consider how you stand in relation to them, and how we were born to help one another.
“Them” here refers to other people. According to Stoic cosmopolitanism, we are born in order to be helpful to each other, to use reason in pursuit of the betterment of the human cosmopolis. This is the meaning of the famous Stoic motto, “live according to nature.”
Secondly, consider what kind of beings they are, at table, in bed, or elsewhere; above all, what compulsions they are subject to because of their opinions, and what pride they take in these very acts.
We always need to keep in mind that human beings frequently act as a result of impulse, not reason, and that their opinions are often badly formed. This should not be an excuse for feeling smugly superior, as we are made of the same stuff and subject to the same psychological forces. Rather, it should lead us to compassion, to remember that we are all fallible, and that help offered to others is far better than ridicule or condemnation.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Figs in Winter, by Massimo Pigliucci to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.