The Stoics on Integrity: passages from Marcus Aurelius

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The Stoics on Integrity: passages from Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. Gill (Marcus Aurelius: Meditations Books 1-6, translated with Introduction and Commentary, Clarendon Later Ancient Philosophers, Oxford UP, 2013)
3. [6] (1) If you can find anything in human life better than justice, truthfulness, self-control, courage – in short, than the self-sufficiency of your mind both in the actions which it enables you to perform according to right reason and the events which are allocated by fate without your choice – if, as I say, you can see anything better than this, turn to it with all your heart and enjoy the supreme good that you have found. (2) If nothing better is revealed than the guardian spirit seated within you, which has subordinated to itself all your motives, and scrutinizes your thoughts and has, as Socrates used to say, withdrawn itself from all sensory passions and has subordinated itself to the gods and which takes care of other people – (3) if you find all other things to be trivial and valueless in comparison with this, give no room to anything else, since, once you turn towards that and divert from your proper path, you will no longer be able without inner conflict to give the highest honour to that which is properly good. (4) It is not right to set up as a rival to the rational and social good anything alien to its nature, such as the praise of the many, or positions of power, wealth, or enjoyment of pleasures. (5) All of these, even if they seem to suit our nature for a little while, suddenly take control of us and carry us away. (6) But in your case, as I say, simply and freely choose what is better and hold on to that. ‘But what is better is what benefits me’. If it benefits you as a rational creature, then maintain this. (7) But if it does so as an animal, reject it and hold to your decision without a big fuss. Only take care that your enquiry is conducted securely.
3. [7] (1) Never value as beneficial to yourself something which will force you one day to break your word, abandon your sense of shame, hate, suspect, or curse someone else, pretend, or desire something that needs the secrecy of walls or curtains. (2) The one who has chosen to value above all his own mind and guardian-spirit and the worship of his mind’s virtue does not make a drama of his life or complain and will not need either isolation or crowds of people; most of all, he will live neither pursuing nor avoiding things. (3) He does not care in any way whether he will have his soul enclosed by his body for a longer or shorter time; (4) even if he needs to leave right away, he goes away as readily as if he were performing any of the other actions that can be done in a decent and orderly way, exercising care for this alone throughout his life, that his mind should never be in a state which is alien to that of a rational and social being.
5. [3] (1) Judge yourself worthy of every word and action that is in line with nature, and do not let yourself be talked out of this by any subsequent criticism or talk, but if anything has been done or said rightly, do not consider yourself to deserve any less. (2) Those others have their own ruling centres and follow their own motives. Don’t turn round to look at that, but continue straight on, following your own and the common nature, since both of these follow a single path.
5. [6] (1) One kind of person, whenever he does someone else a good turn, is quick in calculating the favour done to him. (2) Another is not so quick to do this; but in himself he thinks about the other person as owing him something and is conscious of what he has done. (3) A third is in a sense not even conscious of what he has done, but is like a vine which has produced grapes and looks for nothing more once it has produced its own fruit, like a horse which has run a race, a dog which has followed the scent, or a bee which has made its honey.

(4) A person who has done something good does not make a big fuss about it, but goes on to the next action, as a vine goes on to produce grapes again in season. (5) So you should be one of those who do this without in a sense being aware of doing so.(6) ‘Yes; but surely we should be aware of this’, someone may say, ‘since it is characteristic of a social being to perceive that he is acting sociably, and – by Zeus – to want his neighbour to perceive it too!’ (7) What you say is true; but you are misinterpreting the present point, and because of that you will be one of the people I mentioned before; they too are misled by a certain kind of plausible reasoning. (8) But if you want to engage with the real meaning of my point, don’t be afraid that because of that you will neglect any socially beneficial act.

6. [30] (1) Take care you are not turned into a Caesar, or stained with the purple; these things do happen. (2) So keep yourself simple, good, sincere, dignified, unpretentious, a friend of justice, reverential towards the gods, kind, affectionate, and vigorous in doing what is fitting. (3) Struggle to remain the kind of person that philosophy wanted to make you. (4) Respect the gods, look after human beings. Life is short; the one harvest of our existence is a holy disposition and actions serving the common good.

(5) In all things, act as a pupil of Antoninus: his energy for actions done in line with reason, his evenness of temper in all situations, his piety, the serenity of his expression, the sweetness of his character, the absence of vacuous pride, the ambition to understand situations. (6) How in general he let nothing pass without examining it carefully and coming to a clear understanding; (7) how he put up with those who blamed him without justification, and did not blame them in return; how he was never rushed into anything, and how he refused to listen to malicious gossip; (8) how acute he was in examining people’s characters and action; not ready to criticize; not anxious at every rumour; not suspicious; not a sophist; (9) how he was satisfied with little, for instance, in housing, bedding, clothing, food, service; (10) and how hard-working he was and how patient. (11) How he was able to keep on at his work until evening, because of his frugal diet not needing to relieve himself except at the usual time; (12) his stability and consistency in friendships; (13) how he tolerated frank opposition to his views and was pleased if someone showed him a better way; (14) how he was reverential towards the gods without superstition; (15) so may your last hour may find you with as clear a conscience as his.

Epictetus, Discourses 1.2, trans. R. Hard (Oxford World’s Classics, 2014)
1.2 How one may preserve one’s proper character in everything
For a rational being, only what is contrary to nature is unendurable, while everything that is reasonable can be endured. Blows are not by nature unendurable. – ‘How so?’ – Look at it in this way, the Spartans will put up with a beating, in the knowledge that it’s reasonable. – ‘But to be hanged, isn’t that past bearing?’ – When someone feels it to be reasonable, though, he’ll go off and hang himself. In short, if you pay due attention, you’ll find that there’s nothing that distresses a rational creature as much as that which is contrary to reason, and that, conversely, there’s nothing to which he is so attached as that which is reasonable.

But these concepts of the reasonable and unreasonable mean different things to different people, as do those of good and bad, and of the advantageous and disadvantageous. That is the main reason why we have need of education, so as to be able to apply our preconceptions of what is reasonable and unreasonable to specific cases in conformity with nature. Now to determine what is reasonable or unreasonable, not only do we have to form a judgement about the value of external things, but we also have to judge how they stand in relation to our own specific character. It is thus reasonable for one person to hold out a chamber-pot for another simply in view of the fact that, if he fails to do so, he’ll get a beating and no food, but will suffer no rough or painful treatment if he does hold it; whereas, for another person, it won't only seem intolerable to hold out the pot, but even to allow someone else to hold it for him. If you ask me, then, ‘Shall I hold out the pot or not?’, I’ll reply that it’s of greater value to get food than not to get it, and a worse thing to be beaten than not to be beaten, so if you measure your interests by these standards, you should go off and hold out the pot. ‘Yes, but that would be beneath me.’ It’s for you to take that further point into consideration, not me, since you’re the one who knows yourself, and know what value you set on yourself, and at what price you’ll sell yourself; for different people sell themselves at different prices.

That’s why, when Florus was considering whether he should attend Nero’s show, to play some part in it, Agrippinus said to him, ‘Go!’; and when Florus asked him, ‘Then why aren’t you going yourself?’, he replied, ‘Because I’ve never even considered it.’ For as soon as anyone begins to consider such questions, assessing and comparing the values of external things, he comes near to being one of those people who have lost all sense of their proper character. What are you asking me, then? ‘Is death to be regarded as preferable or life?’ I answer: Life. ‘Pain or pleasure?’ I answer: Pleasure.

‘But if I don’t agree to play a role in the tragedy, I’ll lose my head.’

Go and play that role then, but I won't play one.

‘Why not?’

It’s because you regard yourself as being only a single thread among all the others in the tunic.


You should thus consider how you can come to resemble everyone else, just as a mere thread wouldn’t want to be marked out in any way from all the rest. But for my part, I want to be the purple, the small gleaming band that makes all the rest appear splendid and beautiful. Why do you tell me, then, ‘You should be like the mass of people’? In that case, how shall I still be the purple?

Helvidius Priscus saw this too, and having seen it, he acted accordingly. When Vespasian sent word to him not to attend a meeting of the Senate, he replied, ‘It lies in your power not to allow me to be a member of the Senate, but as long as I remain one, I must attend its meetings.’ – ‘Well, if you do attend, keep quiet.’ – ‘If you don’t ask for my opinion, I’ll keep quiet.’ – ‘But I must ask you.’ – ‘And for my part, must reply as I think right.’ – ‘But if you do, I’ll have you executed.’ – ‘And when have I ever claimed to you that I’m immortal? You fulfil your role, and I’ll fulfil mine. It’s yours to have me killed, and mine to die without a tremor; it’s yours to banish me, and mine to depart without a qualm.’

What good did Priscus achieve, then, being only a single man? And what does the purple achieve for the cloak? Why, what else than standing out in it as purple, and setting a fine example for all the rest? Another man, if he’d been told by Caesar to stay away from the Senate in such circumstances, would have replied, ‘Thank you for excusing me.’ But Caesar wouldn’t have tried to stop such a man from going to the Senate in the first place, knowing that he would either sit there like a jug, or else, if he did speak, would say exactly what he knew Caesar would want him to say, piling on plenty more in addition.

It is in this way that a certain athlete behaved too, when he was in danger of dying if his genitals weren’t cut off. His brother (who was a philosopher) came to him and said, ‘Well brother, what are you planning to do? Are we to cut off this part of you and go to the gymnasium as usual? But the athlete wouldn’t submit to that, but set his mind against it and died. When someone asked, ‘How did he do that? Was it as an athlete or as a philosopher?’, Epictetus replied, ‘As a man, and as a man who had been proclaimed as victor at Olympia, and had fought his corner there, and had passed his life in such places, rather than merely having oil smeared over him at Baton’s training-ground. But another man would be willing even to have his head cut off, if it were possible for him to live without a head. This is what is meant by acting according to one’s character, and such is the weight that this consideration acquires among those who make a habit of introducing it into their deliberations.

‘Come now, Epictetus, shave off your beard.’

If I’m a philosopher, I’ll reply, ‘I won't shave it off.’

‘Then I’ll have you beheaded.’

If it pleases you to do so, have me beheaded.

Someone asked, ‘Then how may each of us come to recognize what is appropriate to his own character?’ How is it, replied Epictetus, that when a lion attacks, the bull alone is aware of its own might, and hurls itself forward on the behalf of the entire herd? Isn’t it clear that the possession of such power is accompanied at the same time by an awareness of that power? And in our case too, if someone possesses such power, he won't fail to be aware of it. And yet a bull doesn’t become a bull all at once, any more than a man acquires nobility of mind, no, he must undergo hard winter training, and so make himself ready, rather than hurl himself without proper thought into what is inappropriate for him.

Only, consider at what price you’re willing to sell your freedom of choice. If nothing else, make sure, man, that you don’t sell it at a cheap price. But what is great and exceptional is perhaps the province of others, of Socrates and people of that metal.

‘Why is it, then, if we are fitted by nature to act in such a way, all or many of us don’t behave like that?’

What, do all horses become swift-running, or all dogs quick on the scent? And then, because I’m not naturally gifted, shall I therefore abandon all effort to do my best? Heaven forbid. Epictetus won't be better than Socrates; but even if I’m worse, that’s good enough for me. For I won’t ever be a Milo either, and yet I don’t neglect my body; nor a Croesus, and I don’t neglect my property; nor in general do I cease to make any effort in any regard whatever merely because I despair of achieving full perfection.

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