Meditations on Meditations: Praise and Service (4.19)

The man whose heart is palpitating for fame after death does not reflect that out of all those who remember him every one will himself soon be dead also, and in the course of time the next generation after that, until in the end, after flaring and sinking by turns, the final spark of memory is quenched.

Furthermore, even supposing that those who remember you were never to die at all, nor their memories to die either, yet what is that to you?

Clearly, in your grave, nothing; and even in your lifetime, what is the good of praise – unless maybe to subserve some lesser design?

Surely, then, you are making an inopportune rejection of what Nature has given you today, if all your mind is set on what men will say of you tomorrow.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.19

Why do I seek out and fear fame and praise? Why is it such a dominant force in my life for both action and, more prominently, inaction?

Fame and praise are very real, but they follow from what greater good you serve in this moment, now. They do not follow from fretting about or clinging to every careless word uttered by another. Nor from following fashion, peer pressure or cultural habit.

In what is known as the Gestalt Prayer, psychotherapist Fritz Perls wrote:

I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.

Fritz Perls, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim (1969)

This may deal with the problem of living for what men will say of us tomorrow, but how can we best embrace what Nature has given us today?

The most robust answer that Stoicism gives, beyond the pursuit of wisdom, is service for the common good. Without seeking praise, we should pursue tasks that help others today and train ourselves to better serve others tomorrow.

Serving the common good need not be hard and can happen, with courage, in any moment. Be promiscuous with your service and remember that your actions are complete in and of themselves; they don’t need thanks or praise.

In another meditation, Marcus implores himself to be:

… like the vine which produces a cluster of grapes and then, having yielded its rightful fruit, looks for no more thanks than a horse that has run his race, a hound that has tracked his quarry, or a bee that has hived her honey.

Like them, the man who has done one good action does not cry it aloud, but passes straight on to a second, as the vine passes on to the bearing of another summer’s grapes.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.6

We should aim to be as bountiful in our service as a Roman vine is with her grapes.

When I help others, I feel alive and engaged in my purpose. When I am with others, embarking on some task, I feel alive and engaged. Closeted in my room, alone, I ruminate and chastise myself for my selfishness and struggle against bonds of my own making, seeking salvation in self-help and books of circular arguments.

Remember that the very concept of self-help is an impossible contradiction and that, as Anthony Seldon says, selfishness is the very opposite of happiness.

When days feel empty and motivation and momentum feels lost, go and help out. Contribute. Serve. Ask someone else what you can do to help. Work for the common good of all.

What do you think?