The following quote is found all over the internet:
“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but…will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”
This quote is widely attributed to Marcus Aurelius, and is plastered all over the web in memes galore:
I really liked this quote, and it got me interested to explore more of his writings. And I have to say on a side note, I have never really looked into Stoicism before; I didn’t even know/realize Marcus Aurelius was one of the great classic Stoic authors, and one of the few who’s writings have survived.
So I picked up two ebooks:
First of all, I was really impressed by his writing. There is some great stuff in there (which I won’t go into too much in this post), and I can say that it was hugely inspirational. For instance, the following quote from book 2:8:
“Not easily is a man found to be unhappy by reason of his not regarding what is going on in another man’s soul; but those who do not attend closely to the motions of their own souls must inevitably be unhappy.”
But let’s get to his supposedly most famous quote of all. After having finished reading his writings (the two books are basically the same, just different translations; I read the C.R. Haines translation, and used the other to occasionally check things, to see what the differences were), I came to the conclusion that the ‘Live a Good Life’ quote was nowhere to be found (at least not the version so popular online). The only quote that came somewhat close, is found in book 2:11 (quoted here from both translations):
“Let thine every deed and word and thought be those of a man who can depart from life this moment. But to go away from among men, if there are Gods, is nothing dreadful; for they would not involve thee in evil. But if indeed there are no Gods, or if they do not concern themselves with the affairs of men, what boots it for me to live in a Universe where there are no Gods, where Providence is not? Nay, but there are Gods, and they do concern themselves with human things; and they have put it wholly in man’s power not to fall into evils that are truly such. And had there been any evil in what lies beyond, for this too would they have made provision, that it should be in every man’s power not to fall into it.”
“Since it is possible that thou mayest depart from life this very moment, regulate every act and thought accordingly. But to go away from among men, if there are gods, is not a thing to be afraid of, for the gods will not involve thee in evil; but if indeed they do not exist, or if they have no concern about human affairs, what is it to me to live in a universe devoid of gods or devoid of providence? But in truth they do exist, and they do care for human things, and they have put all the means in man’s power to enable him not to fall into real evils. And as to the rest, if there was anything evil, they would have provided for this also, that it should be altogether in a man’s power not to fall into it.”
I seems as if the popular ‘Live a Good Life’ quote has been re-written from this quote, by whom I do not know. If someone does, please let me know! I am curious to find out. Perhaps it is taken from a more modern translation somehow?
What is interesting (to me at least) and what attracts me to his writing, is that Marcus Aurelius personally definitely did believe in Gods, but believed man to be capable of rationally handling whatever comes across his path (regardless of the existence or non-existence of God(s)), and to use rationality and ‘the greatness of the mind’ as a way do decide his course in life, as the following quote from book 3:11 makes clear, and which resonates with me:
“For nothing is so conducive to greatness of mind as the ability to examine systematically and honestly everything that meets us in life, and to regard these things always in such a way as to form a conception of the kind of Universe they belong to, and of the use which the thing in question subserves in it; what value it has for the whole Universe and what for man, citizen as he is of the highest state, of which all other states are but as households; what it actually is, and compounded of what elements, and likely to last how long – namely this that now gives me the impression in question; and what virtue it calls for from me, such as gentleness, manly courage, truth, fidelity, guilelessness, frugality, and the rest.”