ancient wisdom: marcus aurelius on motivation and getting your ass out of bed

Andrei Marks · July 26, 2010

Gray Hexagon Marcus Aurelius at the ForumHere’s the opening paragraph of Book 5 of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, translation by George Long:

In the morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present- I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed-clothes and keep myself warm? - But this is more pleasant. - Dost thou exist then to take thy pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? Dost thou not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their several parts of the universe? And art thou unwilling to do the work of a human being, and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to thy nature? - But it is necessary to take rest also. - It is necessary: however nature has fixed bounds to this too: she has fixed bounds both to eating and drinking, and yet thou goest beyond these bounds, beyond what is sufficient; yet in thy acts it is not so, but thou stoppest short of what thou canst do. So thou lovest not thyself, for if thou didst, thou wouldst love thy nature and her will. But those who love their several arts exhaust themselves in working at them unwashed and without food; but thou valuest thy own own nature less than the turner values the turning art, or the dancer the dancing art, or the lover of money values his money, or the vainglorious man his little glory. And such men, when they have a violent affection to a thing, choose neither to eat nor to sleep rather than to perfect the things which they care for. But are the acts which concern society more vile in thy eyes and less worthy of thy labour? (emphasis mine)

God damn. I’ve decided to memorize this and recite it whenever I wake up. Going through the Meditations, about half of what he says I can discard for lack of relevance to modern society and its scientific worldview, but the other half unfailingly gives me the shivers.

Although the emperor’s more general, stoic point is that you shouldn’t complain about whatever cards life has dealt you, you just play them, for those who think that they do know what they’re doing this advice is an even more powerful motivator.

So I’m going to sidestep that deeper philosophical point that he’s trying to make: that everyone’s life is as it should be, that their personal situation is already part of a perfectly well-ordered universe, and that taking part in that universal dance is reason enough for living. Obviously if everyone could swallow that about their less than pleasing existences we wouldn’t still be having the same problems described by Marcus Aurelius nearly two millenia ago.

But if you can come to grips with your existence, or are fortunate enough to be pursuing some sort of work or passion that is self-actualizing or leads to self-actualization, then this passage simply says it all. It’s a potent reminder for  whenever you might lose sight of the point of your striving. You do what you do because such doing is the very fulfillment of what you are.

Also, according to wiktionary a turner is “a person who turns and shapes wood etc. on a lathe.”

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