Stoic Meditation

by Donald Robertson


The Earl of Shaftesbury’s Philosophical Regimen

The following passages from the Earl of Shaftesbury are based on his reading of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.  He describes a common Stoic and Platonic meditation exercise, which essentially involves trying to contemplate the whole of space and time, as if entering the mind of God:


View the heavens. See the vast design, the mighty revolutions that are performed. Think, in the midst of this ocean of being, what the earth and a little part of its surface is; and what a few animals are, which there have being. Embrace, as it were, with thy imagination all those spacious orbs, and place thyself in the midst of the Divine architecture. Consider other orders of beings, other schemes, other designs, other executions, other faces of things, other respects, other proportions and harmony. Be deep in this imagination and feeling, so as to enter into what is done, so as to admire that grace and majesty of things so great and noble, and so as to accompany with thy mind that order, and those concurrent interests of things glorious and immense. For here, surely, if anywhere, there is majesty, beauty and glory. Bring thyself as oft as thou canst into this sense and apprehension; not like the children, admiring only what belongs to their play; but considering and admiring what is chiefly beautiful, splendid and great in things. And now, in this disposition, and in this situation of mind, see if for a cut-finger, or what is all one, for the distemper and ails of a few animals, thou canst accuse the universe. (Shaftesbury, Philosophical Regimen, Deity, p. 19)

After quoting Marcus Aurelius, “To conclude, always observe how ephemeral and worthless human things are”, Shaftesbury wrote concerning the grand vision of the history of the universe, and the flux of things:

Consider the several ages of mankind; the revolutions of the world, the rise, declension and extinction of nations, one after another; after what manner the earth is peopled, sometimes in one part and then in another; first desert, then cultivated, and then desert again; from woods and wilderness, to cities and culture, again into woods; one while barbarous, then civilised, and then barbarous again; after, darkness and ignorance, arts and sciences, and then again darkness and ignorance as before.

Now, therefore, remember whenever thou art intent and earnest on any action that seems highly important to the world, whenever it seems that great things are in hand, remember to call this to mind: that all is but of a moment, all must again decline. What though it were now an age like one of those ancient? What though it were Rome again? What though it were Greece? How long should it last? Must not there be again an age of darkness? Again Goths? And shortly, neither shall so much as the name of Goths be remembered, but the modern as well as ancient Greeks and Italians be equally forgotten. […]

Such is the state of mankind; these are the revolutions. The tree sprouts out of the ground, then grows, then flourishes awhile; at last decays and sinks, that others may come up. Thus men succeed to one another. Thus names and families die; and thus nations and cities. What are all these changes and successions? What is there here but what is natural, familiar, and orderly, and conducing to the whole? Where is the tragedy? Where the surprise or astonishment? Are not these the leaves of the wood carried off with the winter blast, that new ones may in the spring succeed? Is not the whole surface of the earth thus? and are not all things thus? Is it not in these very changes that all those beauties consist which are so admired in nature, and by which all but the grossed sort of mankind are so sensibly moved? The sum of all this is, that be this what season soever of the world, be it the very winter that thou livest in, or be it in the spring, all is alike. (Shaftesbury, Philosophical Regimen, Human Affairs, pp. 70-71)


Originally appearing at Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, added to the Society archives with permission of the author.