459. Essay: Critiquing Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations
I enjoyed reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. There are many good things about it, such as how much he focuses on living in the moment, ridding yourself of pride and vanity, becoming at peace with the transitory nature of your life, and always attempting to progress in knowledge for the benefit of yourself and others. However, I found some problems with his logic, beliefs, and thought processes, which I have outlined below.
- He assumes the nature of “the gods” is good.
- He assumes that the nature of humans and “the gods” is the same.
- He assumes mankind is inherently good, or can at least become perpetually good through recognizing our social responsibility.
- He wrongly states that “our actions are what makes us bad” (Book 9, #4) rather than understanding that our actions are secondary to our nature — they are the postscript to who we truly are.
- He assumes that with enough knowledge, all humans will choose to do good to all others. (Book 4, #3)
- He attempts to simultaneously presume inherent human goodness while railing about mankind’s perpetual evil.
- He does not account for: human selfishness, free will, inherent darkness within the core of humans, knowingly blatant acts of evil, opportunism, pain aversion, or seeking pleasure.
- He assumes that what he calls “the ruling factor”, “the ruling nature”, and “man’s constitution” is inherently good, with no part of #7 above.
- He fails to produce even one example of “enough knowledge” leading to doing good to all. This is especially ironic since all humans admit grievous failures, and even those with arrogance enough to refuse this honesty would have multitudes listing their failures for them.
- He fails to understand that justice is inherently a position taken with a fully formed opinion. Desiring justice demands the stance that justice is better than injustice, but judging between two things necessitates a standard by which to weigh the two options in question. This mediating standard that judges between justice and injustice cannot therefore be justice itself; it must be beyond, higher, and greater than either of the two options in question. (Book 6, #52; Book 11, #18, part 7) He attempts to have it both ways by saying injustice is wrong, but that injustice should not be judged. Either, as he stated, “injustice is impiety” and grievous acts are truly wrong, or injustice and grievous acts are fine and should not be judged. (However, calling it injustice is itself an act of judging something as wrong. The question itself has begun to unravel.)
- He assumes that anything done “according to nature” is inherently good. This assumes that all natural things are good. This is obviously wrong because it assumes a free-good-will both in the essence and in the effect. Free will, however, is never totally good in that choice negates predetermined goodness. Also, nature makes no choices since it does not have a mind or will.
- Because he assumes inherent human goodness, he wrongly believes that any action done by “looking within” and doing what you find there will be good. (Book 7, #58–59)
- While exalting “nature’s creation”, he simultaneously calls the body or flesh “bad” (Book 7, #66). But what is more natural than the body, its appetites, and its needs? Logically, Aurelius has already forfeited any ground to call anything bad by asserting the following: the gods are good; human nature is the same as the gods, meaning inherently good; nature is good; and anything done according to nature is good. He has therefore lost all ground upon which to state that anything is bad, especially the body or flesh.
- He states humans both are and are not from nature and from the gods. This is problematic for his logic. If from nature, then we should judge only what nature judges and do all things to sustain nature’s balance and self-renewal. If we are from the gods, then we must view and judge all things as they do: with ferocity, intervention, and recompense. If we are not from nature, then we should utilize nature only so much as to be sustainable going forward. If we are not from the gods, then regardless what they do, say, or demand, our only true concern with them should be self-preservation — a far cry from peace with them — in interaction.
- He wrongly and illogically states that we should view, scrutinize, and treat acts of virtue differently than all other acts. (Book 11, #2)
- He assumes that nature has a will with which things are guided, perfectly in sync, and constrained; and that everything which occurs is according to nature’s will. (Book 12, #5 and #24) But this assumes not a blind force or purposeless energy, but a mind. So if nature is a mind, then of what sort? A mind that guides and constrains must have both purpose for those things and desires. Purpose could possibly be inherent or at least evidenced by a thing’s form and function, but desire is categorically different. Desire means that purpose (form and function) may be actively resisted; it need not be constrained by either form or function. But if form and function are actively resisted or rejected, the thing then loses its purpose since it is now working against nature.
- He states, “[the gods] do nothing wrong, either voluntarily or involuntarily” (Book 12, #12). Has he not heard or read the dramas of Greek and Roman deities? Surely he has, and thus he is doubly wrong.
- He states, “Men do nothing wrong except involuntarily” (Book 12, #12). This is wrong because it negates the free will and the overwhelming daily evidence to the contrary. Also, has he been sequestered from all children? One hour in a child’s presence should provide sufficient refutation.
Aurelius wrote Meditations to his son, and much of it seems to be written toward the end of his life. My writings to you, my children, are in part due to Aurelius’s words of encouragement to live in the moment, to better ourself, and to pass on something to future generations.
Acknowledging life’s transience is a gift. It connects us to the things that truly matter — to joy, to self-control, to others, to a legacy of love and encouragement. Aurelius seemed to have this connection, and he desired to pass that on to future generations. I invite you to leave something for others that would encourage them and connect them to things of substance.