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Meditations of Marcus Aurelius


Emperor Marcus Aurelius (born Marcus Annius Verus —aurelius appears to mean "gilttering") reigned from 161 to 180 during the famous pax romana.

However, pax or no pax, he had his hands full because virtually all of the imperial frontiers were threatened with invasions, because Christians struck many Romans as getting entirely out of hand (despite persecutions), and because troops sent to try to conquer the Parthians returned home bringing a plague that devastated the city of Rome. (His reign is nevertheless considered Rome's "golden age"; there is an important lesson in that.)

Marcus Aruelius was both thoughtful and learnèd, and his Meditations is still considered one of the masterpieces of ancient writing and one of the best distillations of the Stoic school of philosophy. (Wikipedia Article)

The following brief passage on prayer concisely illustrates some features of Roman Stoic thought. Line numbers are added to facilitate reference during class discussion or arguments with your roommate.


Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (9:40)

Modified from the translation of George Long (1862)
Based on the Latin text edited by J.M. Schulz (1802)
(Go to English-only version.)

1. Either the gods have no power or they have power. If they have no power, why do you pray to them? Aut nihil possunt dii aut possunt. Si igitur nihil possunt, cur precaris?
2. But if they have power, why not pray to them asking for the faculty of not fearing whatever you fear, or not desiring whatever you desire, or not being pained at whatever pains you, rather than praying that any of these things happen or not happen to you? Si possunt, cur non potius eos precibus rogas, ut tibi dent, ne quid horum extimescas aut cupias neque tali re doleas, quam ut horum aliquid vel absit vel adsit?
3. Certainly if the gods can cooperate with people, they can cooperate this way, and say what you will, the gods have placed emotions [fear, desire, pain] in your power. Omnino enim, si hominibus auxilium praestare possunt, in talibus quoque id possunt. Verum fortasse dices: “Haec dii in mea potestate posuere.”
4. So then is it not better to use what is in your power like a free agent than to ask slavishly and abjectly for what is not in your power? Itane vero praestat, iis, quae tui sunt arbitrii, cum libertate uti, quam ea, quae tui arbitrii non sunt, animo servili et abjecto curare?
5. And who has told you that the gods do not aid us even in the things [like emotions] which are in our power? So begin then to pray for those things and you will see what I mean. Quis tamen tibi dixit, deos nobis non ad ea quoque, quae in nostra potestate sunt, opem ferre? Haec igitur ab iis precari incipe, et videbis.
6. For example, a certain man prays thus: “[Oh gods,] help me to lie with that woman.” But you should pray this way: “[Oh gods,] help me not to desire to lie with that woman.” Alius precatur: utinam mihi contingat concubitus cum illa! Tu: utinam non appetam illius concubitum!
7. Another man prays thus: “Let me be released from this.” Better to say: “Let me not desire to be released from this.” Alius: utinam eo priver! Tu: utinam non opus habeam eo privari!
8. Or another prays, “Let me not lose my little son.” Better to say: “Let me not be afraid to lose my little son.” Alius: utinam filiolum non amittam! Tu: utinam uon metuam amittere!
9. In short, say your prayers this way and see what happens [for they will be answered]. Huc omnino verte vota tua, et vide, quid futurum sit.

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