In Book VII of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor emphasizes the individual’s commitment to oneself.
Whatever any one does or says, I must be good; just as if the gold, or the emerald, or the purple, were always saying this. Whatever any one does or says, I must be emerald and keep my color. (15)
Look within. Within is the fountain of good, and it will ever bubble up, if thou wilt ever dig. (59)
As a major tenant of stoicism, Marcus Aurelius acknowledges the multitude of factors that enter our lives that we cannot control. As always, what we can control is our response, the way we react to forces of nature and social influences. The temporary nature of all things should frame circumstances in a valuable perspective to respond with strength in neutrality.
There is nothing new: all things are both familiar and short-lived. (1)
Every man is worth just so much as the things are worth about which he busies himself. (3)
Without fear of future occurrences, one should be comfortable with the reality that the future will be dealt with with the same faculty that one deals with occurrences in the present.
Let not future things disturb thee, for thou wilt come to them, if it shall be necessary, having with thee the same reason which now thou usest for present things. (8)
Rather than fear changes, one should be pleased that the universal dynamic of change takes place at all.
Is any man afraid of change? Why what can take place without change? What then is more pleasing or more suitable to the universal nature? And canst thou take a bath unless the wood undergoes a change? And canst thou be nourished, unless the food undergoes a change? And can anything else that is useful be accomplished without change? Dost thou not see then that for thyself also to change is just the same, and equally necessary for the universal nature? (18)
Nature which governs the whole will soon change all things which thou seest, and out of their substance will make other things, and again other things from the substance of them, in order that the world may be ever new. (25)
Consider the past; such great changes of political supremacies. Thou mayest foresee also the things which will be. For they will certainly be of like form, and it is not possible that they should deviate from the order of the things which take place now: accordingly to have contemplated human life for forty years is the same as to have contemplated it for ten thousand years. For what more wilt thou see? (49)
Like with Seneca’s concept of practicing poverty, one can appreciate existing conditions by imagining how precious the present circumstances would be if it were not the actual case. This should be a reminder, but not a crutch.
Think not so much of what thou hast not as of what thou hast: but of the things which thou hast select the best, and then reflect how eagerly they would have been sought, if thou hadst them not. At the same time however take care that thou dost not through being so pleased with them accustom thyself to overvalue them, so as to be disturbed if ever thou shouldst not have them. (27)
Everywhere and at all times it is in thy power piously to acquiesce in thy present condition, and to behave justly to those who are about thee, and to exert thy skill upon thy present thoughts, that nothing shall steal into them without being well examined. (54)
Marcus Aurelius draws an interesting parallel between wrestling and the art of life. This echoes an analogy that Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz draws in his book On War in which he likens war to a wrestling match. The important dynamic is the responsiveness of life and war, both ready to throw unexpected blows that can destabilize the individual.
The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets which are sudden and unexpected. (61)
Marcus Aurelius ends Book VII with a message of doing good for the sake of doing good.
When thou hast done a good act and another has received it, why dost thou look for a third thing besides these, as fools do, either to have the reputation of having done a good act or to obtain a return? (73)