The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - by Pierre Hadot

activitydomain of realityinner attitude
(1) judgmentfaculty of judgmentobjectivity
(2) desireuniversal natureconsent with Destiny
(3) impulse toward actionhuman Naturejustice and altruism

"Always and everywhere, it depends on you

  • piously to rejoice in the present conjunction of events (2);
  • to conduct yourself with justice toward whatever people are present (3);
  • to apply the rules of discernment to your present representation (1), so that nothing nonobjective may infiltrate its way in."

"The following are enough for you:

  • your present value-judgment (1), as long as it is objective;
  • your present action (3), as long as it is accomplished in the service of the human community;
  • your present inner disposition (2), as long as it finds its joy in every conjunction of events brought about by the external cause."

The Stoic philosophical life consists essentially in mastering one's inner discourse. Everything in an individual's life depends on how he represents things to himself--in other words, how he tells them to himself in inner dialogue. "It is not things that trouble us," as Epictetus said, "but our judgments about things," in other words, our inner discourse about things. As he wrote the Meditations, Marcus was thus practicing Stoic spiritual exercises. He was using writing as a technique or procedure in order to influence himself, and to transform his inner discourse by meditating on the Stoic dogmas and rules of life.

Basing his view on the traditional and fundamental Stoic distinction between those things which do not depend upon our will and those which do, Epictetus enumerates the three psychological operations as follows:

What depends on us are value-judgments, impulses toward action, and desire or aversion; in a word, everything which is our own business. What does not depend on us are the body, wealth, honors, and high positions in office; in a word, everything which is not our own business.

Here, we can glimpse one of the Stoics' most fundamental attitudes: the delimitation of our own sphere of liberty as an impregnable islet of autonomy, in the midst of the vast river of events and of Destiny.

Marcus Aurelius reiterates the importance of concentrating upon the present moment. This indissoluble link between the delimitation of the self and the delimitation of the present moment is extremely significant. It is only when I am active, either within myself or upon the outside world, that I am truly myself and at liberty; and it is only in the present moment that I can be active. Only the present is mine, and the present is all that I live.

The delimitation of the present has two principal aspects. On the one hand, its goal is to make difficulties and hardships bearable, by reducing them to a succession of brief instants. On the other, it is a matter of increasing the attention we bring to bear upon our actions, as well as the consent which we grant to the events that happen to us. These two aspects can, moreover, be reduced to one fundamental attitude, which consists, as we can already glimpse, in transforming our way of seeing things and our relationship to time.

Most people are not alive, because they do not live in the present, but are always outside of themselves, alienated, and dragged backwards and forwards by the past and by the present. They do not know that the present is the only point at which they are truly themselves and free. The present is the only point which, thanks to our action and our consciousness, gives us access to the totality of the world.

I can and must live the present which I am living at this moment as if it were the last moment of my life; for even if it is not followed by another instant, I will be able, because of the absolute value of moral intention and of the love of the good which I have lived in this instant, to say in that very instant: I have realized my life, and have gotten everything I could have expected out of it. It is this that enables me to die.

If we become aware of the value of the slightest instant, and if we consider our present actions as the last ones of our life, how could we waste our time in useless and futile acts?

When he speaks of "turning obstacles upside down," Marcus means that if something becomes an obstacle to what I was doing, and thereby to the exercise of a certain virtue that I was practicing, I can find in that very obstacle the opportunity to practice another virtue. For example, if someone were to devote himself to the service of the human community, and thereby devoted himself to exercising the virtue of justice, then a sudden illness would constitute an obstacle to this virtue, but it would also provide the opportunity to exercise oneself in consenting to the will of Destiny. At each instant, the good person tries to do what seems to him in reasonable conformity with that which Reason wants. If, however, Destiny reveals its will, then he accepts it wholeheartedly.

Thus, we always come back to the fundamental will and intention to be in conformity with reason. It is thanks to them that we have complete inner liberty with regard to the objects of our action. The failure of a given action does not trouble our serenity, for such a failure does not prevent the action from being perfect in its essence and intention, and it gives us the opportunity either to undertake a new action, better adapted to circumstances, or else to discipline our desire by accepting the will of Destiny.

The exercise of preparing oneself for hardships is intended to help us avoid not only being unhappy during mishaps, but also being "unhappy before any mishaps." It does this in two ways: in the first place, it makes us understand that future misfortunes--misfortunes, that is, which are merely possible--are not misfortunes for us. Second, it reminds us that, according to Stoic principles, misfortune itself--which may perhaps occur--is not really a misfortune.