A history of philosophy in its most famous quotes. Today: Marcus Aurelius, Meditations: “It is in our power to have no opinion about a thing, and not to be disturbed in our soul; for things themselves have no natural power to form our judgements.”
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Marcus Aurelius: Meditations
It is in our power to have no opinion about a thing, and not to be disturbed in our soul; for things themselves have no natural power to form our judgements. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 6
Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus Caesar (121-180 AD) is still one of the most well-known and generally well-regarded emperors of Rome.
Marcus Aurelius was not only an emperor, but also a philosopher. In a difficult time for Rome and for himself, he turned to philosophy to find strength and guidance. While away from Rome, on military expeditions to the barbarian lands in Central Europe, he kept a diary of his thoughts. This later became known as “Meditations.” But the original title is much more modest: “Notes to Myself,” or “Things that Concern Myself.”
Stoic philosophy is complex and has many facets, but one of its overarching goals is to show a path to human happiness. This happiness comes through cultivating a particular approach to the world that allows us to stay composed and strong in the face of difficulties.
In the quote above, the important concept is things being “in our power” or not. For Stoic philosophers like Marcus Aurelius, it was essential to distinguish between what aspects of our lives and our experience we can control and which things we cannot control. Some of us, for example the Emperor of Rome, might have more control than others, but we all have only limited power to bend the world to our will. Diseases, bad luck, economic collapse, natural disasters and old age spare no one. This is what Marcus Aurelius calls the “things themselves” in the quote above.
If those “things themselves,” that is, the unpredictability of the outside world, can throw us into poverty, illness, hardships and death, what can we do to try and safeguard our happiness? Here, the Stoics employ a psychological trick. They say, it is true that an external event creates a factual situation. But the facts are distinct from our judgements about them.
You can see this easily when you look at the misfortune of others. If you see in the news that a house somewhere far away collapsed and killed most of the members of a family, you will perhaps pity these people; but you will not be devastated by the news. You will be more or less indifferent to the plight of these people you don’t know.
If, on the other hand, this is your house that collapsed, your family that was killed, you will certainly have a different reaction.
From this starting observation, the Stoics conclude that what affects our state of mind, as a reaction to the collapse of the house, is not the collapsed house itself; since one collapsed house affects us, but the other does not. It is, rather, the interpretation that our minds give to these events. When my house collapses, I make a judgement about this event. And this judgement is different from what it would be if the house of a stranger had collapsed.
In the end, therefore, it is these judgements that cause our emotional reactions, and not the events themselves.
But now we should also realise, the Stoics say, that any judgements we make are products of our own minds – they entirely take place within our minds. And, because of that, we always have the power to change them. Nobody and nothing can prescribe to me what judgement I should make in response to some external event. With training, we will be able to keep our own judgements under control. We will be able, therefore, to control our own emotions, and consequently to achieve lasting happiness, even in the face of catastrophic events.
In the end, it is these judgements that cause our emotional reactions, and not the events themselves.
“It is in our power to have no opinion about a thing, and not to be disturbed in our soul,” Marcus Aurelius writes. And this is because “the things themselves have no natural power to form our judgements.” Only we, ourselves, can do that.
Happiness, for the Stoics, is a state of our minds. And therefore entirely in our own control.
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