There is a lot in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations that I found revelatory, or at least that I agreed with whole-heartedly or otherwise found value in. You only have to read through the many “meditations” posts that I’ve done since last year to see proof of that. For the most part, what he wrote 2000 years ago still seems relevant today.
There are, however, a few things that I do not agree with, that I don’t think is applicable to modern times, or that I find somewhat perplexing. One of these things is the question of when to say no.
In the first Book of Meditations, Marcus Aurelius names a number of significant people in his life, and lists off various admirable qualities about each of them. For example, the first line is dedicated to his grandfather Verus, who he credits with teaching him “decency and a mild temper”.
Eventually, Marcus gives mention to Alexander the Platonist (who, according to the added notes at the back of the book, was his secretary). To Alexander the Platonist’s credit, Marcus writes:
“…rarely, and never without essential cause, to say or write to anyone that ‘I am too busy’; nor to use a similar excuse, advancing ‘pressure of circumstances’, in constant avoidance of the proprieties inherent in our relations to our fellows and contemporaries.”
– Book 1, Chapter 12
When I read this, it sounded to me like he’s saying we should never say no to meeting or visiting a friend – or even an acquaintance – if they have asked us to meet with them, and the only excuse we can proffer is “I’m too busy” (which may very well be a legitimate excuse).
I think these days people lament too much that there’s not enough time: There’s not enough time to get all this work done; not enough time to have a social life and hang out with these friends, go out with this person, catch up with that group; not enough time to do these chores, schedule maintenance, fix this thing; and certainly not enough time to eat, sleep and simply survive.
The other day, when I was at work, I was hurriedly packing up an esky for a colleague/ friend to take on an urgent delivery. She commented (half-jokingly, I believe) that she’s never seen me move so fast. At this, I stopped, half in offence (but half-jokingly offended), and I asked her why we need to always be in such a hurry anyway?
To get stuff done – to get more stuff done. [Not her exact answer but something to that effect]
But why do we have to do so many things? Why do we have to do these things at all? Why not say no, slow down, stop, breathe, rest…
Of course, I can’t really talk on this matter. I’m constantly feeling like there are too many things I want to do, and not enough time to do all these things. A lot of my thoughts these days revolve around food and meal prep: What food do I have at home? What should I prepare for the week ahead?
Then there’s my visceral need to read and to write. And between all this, I need to find time to run (otherwise I will get restless, even if I have no energy), and to study Persian (because the joy of learning is still strong within me).
So, with all this loaded up on my proverbial plate, I would happily spend entire week-ends at home, alone, doing all these solitary things. But as soon as someone suggests meeting up for lunch, or catching up over coffee, or going for a walk – I say yes, and I put all those other things aside. I am “too busy” but it doesn’t seem like a good enough excuse. Is that what Alexander the Platonist thought too?
What drives my reasoning is actually something else that Marcus Aurelius has written about: transience. I’ve already written a post about transience last year, but I’ve extended that concept to other people’s transience. That is, that I should not take someone for granted because I don’t know when they will be gone (not necessarily from the world, but from my life).
So, yes, I tend to say yes to these things.
But this reasoning – of transience – offers its own counter-argument. If my time is so limited, and I have so many things to do, and I do not know when my time will run out, shouldn’t I say no to these social gatherings, and focus on something more worthwhile?
Marcus Aurelius writes a lot about social responsibility and doing things for a greater good: “One aim only: action or inaction as civic cause demands” (Book 9, Chapter 12). He also often berates himself for thoughts of seeking fame or praise, and almost seems to not care about other people’s opinions. In Book 11, Chapter 4, he writes that using “fear or pursuit of public opinion” is a “poor motive” even for refraining oneself from doing something bad.
So, at this point, you might be wondering, “what the heck are we supposed to do?” But it seems, like many things in life, there’s no straightforward answer.
If we go back to the virtue of Alexander the Platonist, it might be noted that “essential causes” are exempt from this whole “never say no” thing. But what makes something essential? Civic duty?
A friend (ironically the very same one who was waiting for me to pack the esky) once shared with me that quote (source unknown?) about not being able to give from an empty cup. From this, it may be reasoned that you cannot fulfil “civic duty” if you, yourself, are worn out and run down.
Maybe this whole thing wasn’t something I disagreed with from Meditations, but simply something that needed more contemplation… Maybe I can do all my solitary things…
To finish on a lighter note, here’s another excerpt from Book One (and a different Alexander) that I think is very much still relevant today:
“From Alexander the grammarian: not to leap on mistakes, or captiously interrupt when anyone makes an error of vocabulary, syntax or pronunciation, but neatly to introduce the correct form of that particular expression…”
– Book 1, Chapter 10