Of all the lessons, revelations, advice and guiding principles that I’ve gotten from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations there’s probably one that’s been most influential. Well, I actually hesitate to say that because I don’t always follow it, and because I’ve taken so much from reading the book that it’s really hard to pinpoint which one singular passage I think about the most; but if I had to choose one, this would be it:
Most of what we say and do is unnecessary: remove the superfluity, and you will have more time and less bother. … And the removal of the unnecessary should apply not only to actions but to thoughts also: then no redundant actions either will follow.
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 4, Chapter 24
If I think about the last couple of months, and the things I’ve decided to do and not do, it basically comes back to this. Well, maybe this and the whole transience thing (the idea that we’ll all soon be dead, and life and the universe will go on without us, so a lot of what we stress about doesn’t really matter all that much). I suppose they kind of complement each other.
Since reading this, I’ve found myself questioning some of the things I do, and if, after some consideration, I decide it’s unnecessary or unhelpful to a worthy end, then I simply don’t do the thing, and do something else instead. (Sorry, I realise that was a rather unnecessarily long sentence.)
Is this really necessary? Does it really matter?
These are the questions I’ve been asking myself, and, quite often, the answer is “no”. Sometimes it’s a bit of a grey area, and I feel like I could argue that it is necessary, so I’ll do it anyway, but I have come to realise that there is, indeed, a lot of superfluity in my life.
No wonder people are always complaining about not having enough time for anything!
Do I need to go out this week-end? What would that achieve? Do I really need this drink? Do I really need a coffee today? Must I really eat this sugary treat? Do I even want to? Do I need to go and buy these things?
(To be fair I’ve never really liked shopping, so that question is one that I’ve already wrestled with for most of my life – as long as I’ve had spending money, probably. Also, I’m not a regular coffee drinker, but I like having one now and then as a treat or to boost my alertness/productivity, even though I don’t really need it.)
So I suppose I’ve saved a bit of money; I’ve had some quiet nights at home, writing and studying; I’ve saved myself from unnecessary guilt and disappointment; and I feel (slightly) more productive, and realised that I can actually get things done.
But, like I said at the start, I don’t always adhere to this rational decision-making process: I still eat a fair amount of cake and chocolate and biscuits, I still have the occasional beer, and I still have late nights. These things are sometimes necessary (particularly chocolate), so I cannot cut them out altogether, right? And, of course, I don’t stop and analyse my every move before I make it – that would be beyond ridiculous. It’s usually in those moments when I’m tossing up between “should I” or “shouldn’t I” that Marcus Aurelius’ advice comes to mind.
To finish off, I’d just like to add one more quote that I reckon also complements the one above:
If it is not right, don’t do it: if it is not true, don’t say it.
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 12, Chapter 17
Seems so simple, right?
7 thoughts on “meditations – superfluity”
In the mad rush we tend to live in, I think it’s important to question, from time to time, why we do things, why we frequent certain people, take on obligations. I tend to pare down much more than I used to and I think my life is richer for it. It makes me more present for what I do, because it is meaningful.
Mm agreed – sift away unnecessary obligations, commitments etc, and focus on what’s really meaningful (sometimes easier said than done?)
And how do you define the criteria of necessity? Necessary for survival? Necessary for enjoyment? Necessary for societal obligations?
That is a good question. Marcus Aurelius wrote a lot about doing things for the benefit of “The Whole” (i.e. we are all just parts of the whole (society/world/universe) so we should only do things in the interests of “The Whole”) so I suppose that’s how I judge necessity. But I also look at it in terms of my own health and well-being (or survival, as you put it) because you have to look after yourself before you can do things for others, right?
That’s exactly where I get stuck a lot. Yes, we should prioritise “The Whole”, but then lots of people also argue about putting yourself first, so that you can help others. At one stage, I really struggled with the concept of putting yourself first, because there could be endless situations that it would apply and then you don’t fulfil contributing to “The Whole”. But I think I’ve worked out over the last few years that moderation and balance is quite necessary, and perhaps a sign of wisdom.
Hmm this is something that’s hard to succinctly summarise (probably because it’s a continuous process of learning and developing), but sounds like you’ve got the main points. Would be interested to hear more of your thoughts on all this when you’ve got time to elaborate!
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