Autodidact: self-taught



by V. L. Craven

by Marcus Aurelius [Penguin Great Ideas Edition translated by Maxwell Stanisforth]

Book One
01.01. Courtesy and serenity of temper I first learnt to know from my grandfather Verus.

01.02. Manliness without ostentation I learnt from what I have heard and remember of my father.

01.03. My mother set me an example of piety and generosity, avoidance of all uncharitableness–not in actions only, but in thought as well–and a simplicity of life quite unlike the usual habits of the rich.

01.04. To my great-grandfather I owed the advice to dispense with the education of the schools and have good masters at home instead–and to realize that no expense should be grudged for this purpose.

01.05. it was my tutor who dissuaded me from patronizing Green or Blue [The colours of the rival charioteers in the Circus. Roman enthusiasm for these races was unbounded; successful drivers earned large fortunes and became popular idols.] or Light of Heavy in the ring [In one form of gladiatorial combat (the ‘Thracian’) the opponents were armed with light round buckerls; in another (the ‘Samnite’) they carried heavy oblong shields.] ; and encouraged me not to be afraid of work, to be sparing in my wants, attend to my own needs, mind my own business, and never listen to gossip.

01.06. Thanks to Diognetus, I learnt not to be absorbed in trivial pursuits; to be sceptical of wizards and wonder-workers with their tales of spells, exorcisms, and the like; to eschew cockfighting and other such distractions; not to resent outspokenness; to familiarize myself with philosophy, beginning with Bacchus and going on to Tandasis and Marcian; to write compositions in my early years; and to be ardent for the plank and skin pallet and other rigours of the Greek discipline.

01.07. From Rusticus I derived the notion that my character needed training and care, and that I must not allow myself to be led astray into a sophist’s enthusiasm for concocting speculative treatises, edifying homilies, or imaginary sketches of The Ascetic or The Altruist. He also taught me to avoid rhetoric, poetry, and verbal conceits, affectations of dress at home, and other such lapses of taste… Also I was to be accurate in my reading, and not content with a mere general idea of the meaning; and not to let myself be too quickly convinced by a glib tongue. Through him, too, I came to know Epictetus’ Dissertations , of which he gave me a copy from his library.

01.08. Apollonius impressed on me the need to make decisions for myself instead of depending on the hazards of chance, and never for a moment to leave reason out of sight.

01.09. His manner, too, of determining and systemizing the essential rules of life was as comprehensive as it was methodical. Never displaying a sign of anger nor any kind of emotion, he was at once entirely imperturbable and yet full of kindly affection. His approval was always quietly and undemonstratively expressed, and he never paraded his encyclopaedic learning.

01.10. It was the critic Alexander who put me on my guard against unnecessary fault-finding. People should not be sharply corrected for bad grammar, provincialisms or mispronunciation; it is better to suggest the proper expression by tactfully introducing it oneself in, say, one’s reply to a question or one’s acquiescence in their sentiments, or into a friendly discussion of the topic itself (not of the diction), or by some other suitable form of reminder.

01.16. The qualities I admired in my father [Not his natural father Annius Verus, but the emperor Antoninus Pius, his adoptive father] were his lenience, his firm refusal to be diverted from any decision he had deliberately reached, his complete indifference to meretricious honours his industry, perseverance, and willingness to listen to any project for the common good; the unvarying insistence that rewards must depend on merit; the expert’s sense of when to tighten the reins and when to relax them…
He was aware the social life must have its claims: his friends were under no obligation to join him at his table or attend his progresses, and when they were detained by other engagements it made no difference to him. Every question that came before him in council was painstakingly and patiently examined; he was never content to dismiss it on a cursory first impression… Before his gods he was not superstitious; before his fellow-men he never stooped to bid for popularity or woo the masses, but pursued his own calm and steady way… He accepted without either complacency or compunction such material comforts as fortune had put at his disposal; when they were to hand he would avail himself of them frankly, but when they were not he had no regrets.
…all men recognized in him a mature and finished personality, that was impervious to flattery and entirely capable of ruling both himself and others. Moreover, he had a high respect for all genuine philosophers; and though refraining from criticism of the rest, he preferred to dispense with their guidance. … No hint of jealousy showed in his prompt recognition of outstanding abilities, whether in public speaking, law, ethics, or any other department, and he took pains to give each man the chance of earning a reputation in his own field. … Again, he disliked restlessness and change, and had a rooted preference for the same places and the same pursuits. … he was quite uncritical of the food he ate, of the cut and colour of the garments he wore, or of the personableness of those around him. … he never grew heated, as the saying is, to sweating-point; it was his habit to analyse and weigh every incident, taking his time about it calmly, methodically, decisively, and consistently. … To be thus strong enough to refrain or consent at will argues a consummate and indomitable soul…

Book Two
02.01. Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness—all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part, I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness and also the nature of the culprit himself, who is my brother (not in the physical sense, but as a fellow-creature similarly endowed with reason…); therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading…

02.04. Think of your many years of procrastination, how the gods have repeatedly granted you further periods of grace, of which you have taken no advantage. It is time…to understand that your time has a limit set to it. Use it, then, to advance your enlightenment; or it will be gone, and never in your power again.

02.05. Hour by hour resolve firmly, like a Roman and a man, to do what comes to hand with correct and natural dignity, and with humanity, independence, and justice. Allow your mind freedom from all other considerations. This you can do, if you will approach each action as though it were your last, dismissing the wayward thought, the emotional recoil from the commands of reason, the desire to create and impression, the admiration of self, the discontent with your lot. See how little a man needs to master, for his days to flow on in quietness and piety: he has but to observe these few counsels, and the gods will ask nothing more.

02.06. Wrong, wrong thou art doing to thyself, O my soul; and all too soon thou shalt have no more time to do thyself right. Man has but one life; already thine is nearing its close, yet still hast though no eye to thine own honour, but are staking thy happiness on the souls of other men. [That is, on whether others decide to approve or censure your actions.]

02.07. Are you distracted by outward cares? Then allow yourself a space of quiet, wherein you can add to your knowledge of the Good and learn to curb your restlessness. Guard also against another kind of error: the folly of those who weary their days in much business, but lack any aim on which their whole effort, nay, their whole thought, is focused.

02.12. Our mental powers should enable us to perceive the swiftness with which all things vanish away; their bodies in the world of space, and their remembrance in the world of time. We should also observe the nature of all objects of sense—particularly such as allure us with pleasure, or affright us with pain, or are clamorously urged upon us by the voice of self-conceit—the cheapness and contemptibility of them, how sordid they are, and how quickly fading and dead. We should discern the true worth of those whose word and opinion confer reputations. We should apprehend, too, the nature of death; and that if only it be steadily contemplated, and the fancies we associate with it mentally dissected, it will soon come to be thought of as no more than a process of nature (and only children are scared by a natural process) –or rather, something more than a mere process…

02.13. Nothing is more melancholy than to compass the whole creation, ‘probing into the deeps of earth’, as the poet says, and peering curiously into the secrets of others’ souls, without once understanding that to hold fat to the divine spirit within, and serve it loyally, is all that is needful. Such service involves keeping it pure from passion, and from aimlessness, and from discontent with the works of gods or men; for the former of these works deserve our reverence, for their excellence; the later our goodwill, for fraternity’s sake, and at times perhaps our pity too, because of men’s ignorance of good and evil—an infirmity as crippling as the inability to distinguish black from white.

02.14. Were you to live three thousand years, or even thirty thousand, remember that the sole life which a man can lose is that which he is living at the moment’ and furthermore, that he can have no other life except the one he loses. This means that the longest life and the shortest amount to the same thing. For the passing minute is every man’s equal possession, but what has once gone by is not ours. Our loss, therefore, is limited to that one fleeting instant, since no one can lose what is already past, not yet what he does not possess? So two things should be borne in mind. First, that all the cycles of creation since the beginning of time exhibit the same recurring pattern, so that it can make no difference whether you watch the identical spectacle for a hundred years, or for two hundred, or for ever. Secondly, that when the longest- and the shortest-lived of us to come to die, their loss is precisely equal. For the sole thing of which any man can be deprived is the present; since this is all he owns, and nobody can lose what is not his.

02.16. For a human soul, the greatest of self-inflicted wrongs … is to surrender to pleasure or pain. A fourth, to dissemble and show insincerity or falsity in word or deed. A fifth, for the soul to direct its acts and endeavours to no particular object, and waste its energies purposelessly and without due thought; for even the least of our activities ought to have some end in view…

Book Three

03.02 Thus to a man of sensitiveness and sufficiently deep insight into the workings of the universe, almost everything, even if it be no more than a by-product of something else, seems to add its meed of extra pleasure. Such a man will view the grinning jaws of real lions and tigers as admiringly as he would an artists’ or sculptor’s imitation of them; and the eye of discretion will enable him to see the mature charm that belongs to men and women in old age, as well as the seductive bloom that is youth’s. Things of this sort will not appeal to everyone, he alone who has cultivated a real intimacy with Nature and her works will be struck by them.

03.04. Do not waste what remains of your life in speculating about your neighbours, unless with a view to some mutual benefit. To wonder what so-and-so is doing and why, or what he is saying, or thinking, or scheming—in a word, anything that distracts you from fidelity to the Ruler within you – means a loss of opportunity for some other task. See then that the flow of your thoughts is kept free from idle or random fancies, particularly those of an inquisitive or uncharitable nature. A man should habituate himself to such a way of thinking that if suddenly asked, ‘What is in your mind at this minute?’ he could respond frankly and without hesitation; thus proving that all this thoughts were simple and kindly, as becomes a social being with no taste for the pleasures of sensual imaginings, jealousies, envies, suspicions, or any other sentiments that he would blush to acknowledge in himself. Such a man, determined here and now to aspire to the heights, is indeed a priest and minister of the gods; for he is making full use of that indwelling power which can keep a man unsullied by pleasures, proof against pain, untouched by insult, and impervious to evil. He is a competitor in the greatest of all contests, the struggle against passion’s mastery; he is imbued through and through with uprightness, welcoming whole-heartedly whatever falls to his lot and rarely asking himself what others may be saying or doing or thinking except when the public interest requires it. He confines his operations to his own concerns, having his attention fixed on his own particular thread of the universal web; seeing to it that his actions or honourable, and convinced that what befalls him must be for the best – for his own directing fate is itself under a higher direction. He does not forget the brotherhood of all rational beings, nor that a concern for every man is proper to humanity; and he knows that it is not the world’s opinions he should follow, but only those of men whose lives confessedly accord with Nature. As for others whose lives are not so ordered, he reminds himself constantly of the characters they exhibit daily and nightly at home and abroad , and of the sort of society they frequent; and the approval of such men, who do not even stand well in their own eyes, has no value for him.

03.07. Never value the advantages derived from anything involving breach of faith, loss of self-respect, hatred, suspicion, or execration of others, insincerity, or the desire for something which has to be veiled and curtained. One whose chief regard is for his own mind… will strike no poses, utter no complaints… Best of all, his life will be free from continual pursuing and avoidings. He does not care whether his soul in its moral frame shall be his to possess for a long or a shorter term of years; this very moment, if it be the hour for his departure, he will step forth as readily as he performs any other act that can be done in self-respecting and orderly fashion. No other care has he in life but to keep his mind from straying into the paths incompatible with those of an intelligent and social being.

03.10. Letting go all else, cling to the following few truths. Remember that man lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant: all the rest of his life is either past and gone, or not yet revealed. This mortal like is a little thing, lived in a little corner of the earth: and little, too, is the longest fame to come—dependent as it is on a succession of fast perishing little men who have no knowledge even of their own selves, mush less of one long dead and gone.

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