Marcus Aurelius on How to Live Through Difficult Times
By Maria Popova
“At bottom the whole concern of both morality,” William James wrote in contemplating the human search for meaning, “is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe. Do we accept it only in part and grudgingly, or heartily and altogether? … If we accept the whole, shall we do so as if stunned into submission… or shall we do so with enthusiastic assent?” The pioneering psychologist and philosopher was reaching across time, space, and cultures to perch on the shoulders of another giant of thought: the Roman emperor and great Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius (April 26, 121–March 17, 180), who had articulated this selfsame idea nearly eighteen centuries earlier.
James quotes Aurelius in The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (public library | free ebook) — his 1902 masterwork, which gave us his insight into science and spirituality and the four qualities of transcendent consciousness. The passage does not appear to endure in any translations of Aurelius’s writings currently in print, leading me to suspect that James himself may have translated it — like every intellectual of his generation, he had mastered Latin at a young age.
Aurelius, quoted by James, writes:
It is a man’s duty to comfort himself and wait for the natural dissolution, and not to be vexed, but to find refreshment solely in these thoughts — first that nothing will happen to me which is not conformable to the nature of the universe; and secondly that I need do nothing contrary to the God and deity within me; for there is no man who can compel me to transgress. He is an abscess on the universe who withdraws and separates himself from the reason of our common nature, through being displeased with the things which happen. For the same nature produces these, and has produced thee too. And so accept everything which happens, even if it seem disagreeable, because it leads to this, the health of the universe.
Complement with Marcus Aurelius on how to motivate yourself to get out of bed each morning, the key to peace of mind, what it takes to live fully, and what his father taught him about kindness, decency, and humility, then revisit Emily Levine on meeting reality on its own terms.
Published June 19, 2018