Activity Versus Passivity

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius believed that we existed on this planet to be active, creative, thoughtful, and engaged with the world around us.  At multiple points in his book Meditations he reminds us the value of action in our lives and the value of striving to work toward something.  Toward the end of his book brings up the idea directly stating, “Not in passivity, but in activity, lie the evil and the good of the rational social animal, just as his virtue and his vice lie not in passivity, but in activity.” In this short quote he is showing that on our own and without engaging the world our existence is a void. His thoughts in this quote can be better understood when looking at his view of the work we do (regardless of what that work is) which is summed up in a previous quote that I wrote about, “In the morning when though risest unwillingly, let this thought be present—I am rising to do the work of a human being. … Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed clothes and keep myself warm?—But this is more pleasant.—Dost thou exists then to take thy pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? … and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to thy nature?”


Combining the first quote from above with Aurelius’ outlook on work and human nature helps us see that he believes we are destined to be engaged social beings that strive to accomplish the work that is in front of us and asked of us.  We are not meant to simply keep our bed warm and to exist in isolation in our own comforts.  We may be unwilling to take action in our lives and may simply want to enjoy passivity, but we will not find our meaning in passive moments.  We can build ourselves up in a positive manner only through action, Aurelius explains, but our action also presents the option and chance for negativity.


Aurelius interestingly seems to favor the chance for us to be evil and to face danger and peril as opposed to being comfortable and disengaged from the world while passively lounging in our bed.  In his explanation we simply do not exist, neither in good terms not bad, when we don’t engage the world. We don’t have the ability to show the world our virtue if we don’t engage, but we also hide the parts that are evil. Keeping any part of ourselves to just ourselves and not the world, Aurelius would argue, is selfish and against human nature. In his view we should strive to fulfill ourselves as humans by action, even if that produces both positive and negative results. I think Aurelius would further develop the idea of our action leading to both good and bad by encouraging us to focus our thoughts and reflections back upon ourselves, so that we can understand whether we are using our talents in a positive way for ourselves and society, or if we are simply advancing ourselves at the expense of others.

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