Stoic Serenity 1.5: Marcus Aurelius on Misfortune & Indifferent Things

Marcus Aurelius (courtesy of Wikipedia)

If you have Seddon’s book, you already know that he uses Seneca’s Letters and Aurelius’ Meditations as the two texts for the course. It’s my intent to explore other philosophers later on in my studies, but for now we will stick to these two of the three most famous Stoic philosophers (the third is Epictetus).

For a very quick briefing, (for many more details you can visit the Wikipedia page here [very scholastic, I know]), Marcus Aurelius lived from 121-180 AD. He was Roman Emperor for the last 19 years of his life. One of the fascinating things about Stoicism is that the philosophers came from all walks of life, literally from emperors to slaves.

Seneca, whom we visited in the last lesson (remember Stilpo, “I have all my goods with me!”?) wrote his Letters almost surely with the intent of being published. But Marcus Aurelius probably never dreamed that anyone else would read his personal journal. And so we get a glimpse into his private thoughts as they were jotted down. Due to the nature of this private journal, the themes seem to come and go at random.

Seddon suggests that the reader begin writing their own journal of Stoic thoughts and notes as they progress through the course. You will be able to see if Marcus’ Meditations is something you’d like to imitate after we’ve read from it a bit.

  • Read Meditations, 4.49 on dealing with misfortunes.
  • Read Meditations, 5.36 on how to aid those who have suffered a loss.
  • Read Meditations, 11.16 about indifferent things.

As before, I will re-write the selections here in my own words, but I highly recommend the Robin Hard translation, as it is quite poetic and pleasing to read.


Meditations4.49 on dealing with misfortunes

Be strong like the headland, which is pounded by wave after wave, yet still it stands firm and sees each crashing wave through to its silence. “So many terrible things have happened to me. I must be cursed!”  Oh, but it’s quite the opposite. “I am actually blessed, because while all of these terrible things have happened to me, I remain unfazed. For I have not been defeated by the present, nor do I fear the future.” Keep in mind that these terrible things could have happened to anyone, but not everyone would remain as strong and undisturbed in the face of this beating. So why do you consider this misfortunate instead of fortunate?  Or do you always think that misfortunate can come about by something other than when we act against man’s true nature? Do you consider anything to go against man’s nature if it doesn’t conflict with the will of nature? Well then, you have learned to know what that will is. Consider this: can what has happened to you prevent you in any way from being just, high-minded, self-controlled, cautious, deliberate in your judgment, honest, self-respecting, free, or prevent you from possessing any of the qualities that make it possible to develop man’s true nature? So from now on, when you face any difficulty that distresses you, remember this: this is not misfortune nor a curse, but to endure it with a noble spirit is a blessing.

Phew! I really like how this Meditation starts out “Be strong like the headland…” Rather lovely imagery, and meditating on these thoughts and images can help us remember them so we can pull these tools out to use when needed. This Meditation really related a lot to what we just read recently from Seneca, when Stilpo emerged from everything unscathed. To emerge from adversity with all your goods with you, that is a blessing.


Meditations, 5.36 on how to aid those who have suffered a loss

Don’t allow yourself to be carried away with your impulses or judgements, but help people the best you can, even if what they have lost isn’t intrinsically good. But be careful that you don’t form the impression yourself that any real harm has occurred; because that ‘s an unhealthy habit. Instead, model yourself after the old man in the play you just saw, who, would go out and ask around if anyone had seen his child’s beloved toy, all the while remembering that it was merely a toy for which he was searching. Apply this attitude to your situation, but I’m telling you, don’t give in to actually feeling distressed about the loss! Did you forget what these things really were? “Yes, but they were very important to the person who lost them.” Tell me, is that any reason that you should join them in their mistake?

In the first Meditation we read, we explored how Marcus dealt with his own misfortune–that he reminded himself that those things which are truly good can never be taken from him, and that to endure the storm with his Goods is rather a blessing than a curse. In this second Meditation, Marcus talks about how to relate to others who have suffered so-called “misfortune.” The world around us is full of non-philosophers. We should not be haughty and refuse to help others simply because they are not on the same philosophical path. No, we have a duty to society to help our fellow humans. But Marcus warns us that when helping others, we should practice extreme caution to ensure that we don’t lose sight of our principles. Remember that the toy is only a toy, although it is dear to the child.


Meditations, 11.16 about indifferent things.

I wish for you to live the most well-fulfilled life, and the power to do that lies within your own soul. Always remember to not place value in things that are indifferent. You’ll be able to remain unbiased toward indifferent things if you remember to examine each one as a whole as well as in its separate parts. Remember that none of them are intrinsically good or evil, and they have no value in and of themselves–we give them their value with our perceptions. Remember that we only have to deal with these things for a little while, and then our life will be over. After all, what trouble can these things bring? If they are in accordance with nature, rejoice in them, and don’t let them trouble you. And if they are against nature, then seek what your own nature requires and work towards that, even though it might not be pretty. Everyone can be forgiven for seeking his own good.

This Meditation confuses me a little bit. On a base level, Marcus is simply reminding us that in order to live well or fully, we must focus on what our own soul requires, that is, the virtues. Do not get distracted by the indifferents. The first sentence in this Meditation says it all.


Back to the textbook, Seddon assures us that the Meditations, though they might seem puzzling at first, will begin to make more sense as we make progress on our philosophical walk.

I know for myself that when I’m troubled and experiencing inner turmoil or distress, I often reach for my Letters from a Stoic or sometimes Meditations. It just helps to read these golden nuggets of wisdom when you’re in trouble.

My own assignment today:
Take these 3 points that we learned from Meditations today (how to personally deal with misfortune, how to help others deal with misfortune, attitude toward indifferents) and consider them throughout the day. Keep them in the front of your mind so you are ready to apply them the moment you feel distressed or see a peer who is experiencing distress. Act on these things.

The next two posts will be exercises/assignments, including a journal of daily affairs and exploring another one of Seneca’s Letters. We will have the opportunity to then take on the teachings of Seneca and create an imaginary dialogue to demonstrate our understanding of the material.

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