Thoughts on Ethics and Right Living


Desiderata – Max Ehrmann (1927)

Go quietly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons; for they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others you may become bitter or vain, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery; but let this not blind you to what virtue there is.

Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love, for in the face of aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune, but do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here, and whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, be at peace with your soul. With all its shame, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.

Max Ehrmann – 1927

Selected Extracts from Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus


Book II

1. Say this to yourself in the morning: Today I shall have to do with meddlers, with the ungrateful, with the insolent, with the crafty, with the envious and the selfish. All these vices have beset them, because they know not what is good and what is evil. But I have considered the nature of the good, and found it beautiful: I have beheld the nature of the bad, and found it ugly. I also understand the nature of the evil-doer, and know that he is my brother, not because he shares with me the same blood or the same seed, but because he is a partaker of the same mind and of the same portion of immortality. I therefore cannot be hurt by any of these, since none of them can involve me in any baseness. I cannot be angry with my brother, or sever myself from him, for we are made by nature for mutual assistance, like the feet, the hands, the eyelids, the upper and lower rows of teeth. It is against nature for men to oppose each other; and what else is anger and aversion?

Book III

4. Waste not what remains of life in consideration about others, when it makes not for the common good. Be sure you are neglecting other work if you busy yourself with what such a one is doing and why, with what he is saying, thinking, or scheming. All such things do but divert you from the steadfast guardianship of your own soul.

It behoves you, then, in every train of thought to shun all that is aimless or useless, and, above all, everything officious or malignant. Accustom yourself so, and only so, to think, that, if any one were suddenly to ask you, “Of what are you thinking-now?” you could answer frankly and at once, “Of so and so.” Then it will plainly appear that you are all simplicity and kindliness, as befits a social being who takes little thought for enjoyment or any phantom pleasure; who spurns contentiousness, envy, or suspicion; or any passion the harbouring of which one would blush to own…

10. Cast from you then all other things, retaining these few. Remember also that every man lives only this present moment, which is a fleeting instant: the rest of time is either spent or quite unknown. Short is the time which each of us has to live, and small the corner of the earth he has to live in. Short is the longest posthumous fame, and this preserved through a succession of poor mortals, soon themselves to die; men who knew not themselves, far less those who died long ago.

Book IV

3. Men seek retirement in the country, on the sea-coast, in the mountains; and you too have frequent longings for such distractions. Yet surely this is great folly, since you may retire into yourself at any hour you please. Nowhere can a man find any retreat more quiet and more full of leisure than in his own soul; especially when there is that within it on which, if he but look, he is straightway quite at rest. And rest I hold to be naught else but perfect order in the soul. Constantly, therefore, allow yourself this retirement, and so renew yourself.

Book V

32. How is it that unskilled and ignorant souls disturb the skilful and intelligent? What, I ask, is the skilful and intelligent soul? It is that which knows the beginning and the end, and the reason which pervades all being, and by determined cycles rules the Universe for all time.

Book VI

2. Act the part which is worthy of you, regarding not whether you be stiff with cold or comfortably warm; whether you be drowsy or refreshed with sleep; whether you be in good report or bad; whether you be dying or upon some other business. For death also is one piece of the business of life, and, here as elsewhere, it is enough to do well what comes to our hand.

31. Sober yourself, recall your senses. Shake sleep from you, and know that it was a dream that troubled you; and, now that you are broad awake again, regard the waking world as you did the dream.

37. He who has seen the present has seen all that either has been from all eternity, or will be to all eternity, for all things are alike in kind and form.

48. When you would cheer your heart, consider the several excellencies of those that live around you. Consider the activity of one, the modesty of another, the generosity of a third, and the other virtues of the rest. Nothing rejoices the heart so much as instances, the more the better, of goodness manifested in the characters of those around us. Let us, therefore, have such instances ever present for reflection.

51. The vain-glorious man places his happiness in the action of others. The sensualist finds it in his own sensations. The wise man realizes it in his own work.

52. You have it in your power to form no opinion about this or that, and so to have peace of mind. Things material have no power to form our opinions for us.

Book VII

17. To have good fortune is to have a good spirit, or a good mind. What do you here, Imagination? Be gone, I say, even as you came. I have no need for you. You came, you say, after you ancient fashion: I am not angry with you, only, be gone!

29. Blot out imagination. Check the brutal impulses of the passions. Confine your energies to the present time. Observe clearly all that happens either to yourself or to another. Divide and analyse all objects into cause and matter. Take thought for your last hour. Let another’s sin remain where the guilt lies.

64. In all pain keep in mind that there is no baseness in it, that it cannot harm the soul which guides you, nor destroy that soul as a reasoning or as a social force. In most pain you may find help in the saying of Epicurus, that “pain is neither unbearable nor everlasting, if you bear in mind its narrow limits, and allow no additions from your imagination.” Remember also that we are fretted, though we see it not, by many things which are of the same nature as pain, things such as drowsiness, excessive heat, want of appetite. When any of these things annoy you, say to yourself that you are giving in to pain.

71. It is ridiculous that you flee not from the vice that is in yourself, as you have it in your power to do; but are still striving to flee from the vice in others, which you can never do.

73. When you have done a kind action, another has benefited. Why do you, like the fools, require some third thing in addition – a reputation for benevolence or a return for it.


8. You lack leisure for reading; but leisure to repress all insolence you do not lack. You have leisure to keep yourself superior to pleasure and pain and vain glory, to restrain all anger against the ungrateful, nay, even to lavish loving care upon them.

22. Attend well to what is before you, whether it be a principle, an act, or a word. This your suffering is well merited, for you would rather become good to-morrow than be good to-day.

26. The joy of man is to do his proper business. And his proper business is to be kindly to his fellows, to rise above the stirrings of sense, to be critical of every plausible imagination, and to contemplate universal Nature and all her consequences.

29. Blot out false imaginations, and say often to yourself:—It is now in my power to preserve my soul free from all wickedness, all lust, all confusion or disturbance. And then, as I truly discern the nature of things, I can use them all in due proportion. Be ever mindful of this power which Nature has given you.

Book IX

4. The sinner sins against himself. The wrong-doer wrongs himself by making himself evil.

5. Men are often unjust by omissions as well as by actions.

13. To-day I have escaped from all trouble; or rather I have cast out all trouble from me. For it was not without but within, in my own opinions.

20. Another’s sin you must leave with himself.

38. If he has done wrong, the evil is with him: and perhaps, too, he has not done wrong.

Book X

4. If a man is going wrong, instruct him kindly, and shew him his mistake. If you are unable to do this, blame yourself or none.

8. Having taken to yourself these titles: good, modest, true, prudent, even-tempered and magnanimous, look to it that you change them not; and, if you should come to lose them, seek them straightway again. And remember that prudence means for you reasoned observation of all things, and careful attention; even temper, cheerful acceptance of the lot appointed by universal Nature; magnanimity, the exaltation of the thinking part above any pleasant or painful commotions of the flesh, above vain-glory, above death and all such things. If you steadfastly maintain yourself in these titles, with no hankering after hearing them given to you by others, you will be a new man, and a new life will open for you.

13. As soon as you awake ask yourself: Will it be of consequence to you if what is just and good be done by some other man? It will not. Have you forgotten what manner of men in bed and at table are those who make such display in praise and blame of others; what they do, what they shun and what they pursue; how they steal and how they rob, not with hands and feet but with their most precious part, whereby, if a man will, he may gain faith, modesty, truth, law, a good directing spirit?

16. Discourse no more of what a good man should be; but be one.

32. Let no man have it in his power to say with truth of you that you are not a man of simplicity, candour, and goodness. But let him prove to be mistaken who holds any such opinion of you. This is quite in your power; for who shall hinder you from being good and single-hearted? Only do you determine to live no longer if you cannot be such a man; for neither does reason require, in that case, that you should.

Book XI

15. How rotten and insincere is his profession who says, “I mean to deal straightforwardly with you.” What are you doing, man? There is no need for such a preface. It will appear of itself. Such a profession should be written clearly on your forehead. A man’s character should shine forth clearly from his eyes; as the beloved sees that he is so in the glances of those that love him. The straightforward, good man should be like one of rank odour who can be recognised by the passer by as soon as he approaches, whether he will or no. The ostentation of straightforwardness is the knife under the cloak. Nothing is baser than wolf-friendship. Shun it above all things. The good, straightforward, kindly man bears all these qualities in his eyes, and is not to be mistaken.

24. The Spartans at their public shows set seats for strangers in the shade, but sat themselves where they found room.

Book XII

19. Perceive at last that there is within you something better and more divine than the immediate cause of your sensations of pleasure and pain; something, in short, beyond the strings which move the puppet. What is now my thought? Is it fear? Suspicion? Lust? Or any such passion?

22. Reflect that everything is matter of opinion; and opinion rests with yourself, suppress then your opinion, what time you will, and like one who has doubled the cape and reached the bay, you will have calm and stillness everywhere, never a wave.

Ethics and Right Living

Selected extracts of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Chapter: Self Reliance

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible-society, vote with a great party either for the government or against it, spread your table like base housekeepers, — under all these screens I have difficulty to detect the precise man you are. … But do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself. A man must consider what a blindman’s-buff is this game of conformity. If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument.

In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin. For, the sense of being which in calm hours rises, we know not how, in the soul, is not diverse from things, from space, from light, from time, from man, but one with them, and proceeds obviously from the same source whence their life and being also proceed. … Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind, and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due.

If we live truly, we shall see truly. It is as easy for the strong man to be strong, as it is for the weak to be weak. When we have new perception, we shall gladly disburden the memory of its hoarded treasures as old rubbish.

Welcome evermore to gods and men is the self-helping man. For him all doors are flung wide: him all tongues greet, all honors crown, all eyes follow with desire. Our love goes out to him and embraces him, because he did not need it. We solicitously and apologetically caress and celebrate him, because he held on his way and scorned our disapprobation.

In manly hours, we feel that duty is our place. The soul is no traveller; the wise man stays at home, and when his necessities, his duties, on any occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands, he is at home still, and shall make men sensible by the expression of his countenance, that he goes the missionary of wisdom and virtue, and visits cities and men like a sovereign, and not like an interloper or a valet. … He who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself, and grows old even in youth among old things.

In the Will work and acquire, and thou hast chained the wheel of Chance, and shalt sit hereafter out of fear from her rotations. A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.

Chapter: Compensation

Justice is not postponed. A perfect equity adjusts its balance in all parts of life. … Every secret is told, every crime is punished, every virtue rewarded, every wrong redressed, in silence and certainty.

Crime and punishment grow out of one stem. Punishment is a fruit that unsuspected ripens within the flower of the pleasure which concealed it. Cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit, cannot be severed; for the effect already blooms in the cause, the end preexists in the means, the fruit in the seed.

You cannot do wrong without suffering wrong. … The exclusive in fashionable life does not see that he excludes himself from enjoyment, in the attempt to appropriate it. The exclusionist in religion does not see that he shuts the door of heaven on himself, in striving to shut out others.

He is great who confers the most benefits. He is base, … to receive favors and render none. In the order of nature we cannot render benefits to those from whom we receive them, or only seldom. But the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody.

The thief steals from himself. The swindler swindles himself. For the real price of labor is knowledge and virtue, whereof wealth and credit are signs. These signs, like paper money, may be counterfeited or stolen, but that which they represent, namely, knowledge and virtue, cannot be counterfeited or stolen.

A great man is always willing to be little. Whilst he sits on the cushion of advantages, he goes to sleep. When he is pushed, tormented, defeated, he has a chance to learn something; … has got moderation and real skill. The wise man throws himself on the side of his assailants. It is more his interest than it is theirs to find his weak point.

There is no tax on the good of virtue, … Material good has its tax, and if it came without desert or sweat, has no root in me, and the next wind will blow it away. But all the good of nature is the soul’s, and may be had if paid for in nature’s lawful coin, that is, by labor which the heart and the head allow.

The changes which break up at short intervals the prosperity of men are advertisements of a nature whose law is growth. …
We cannot part with our friends. We cannot let our angels go. We do not see that they only go out that archangels may come in. We are idolaters of the old.… We linger in the ruins of the old tent where once we had bread and shelter and organs, nor believe that the spirit can feed, cover, and nerve us again. We cannot again find aught so dear, so sweet, so graceful. But we sit and weep in vain.

And yet the compensations of calamity are made apparent to the understanding also, after long intervals of time. A fever, a mutilation, a cruel disappointment, a loss of wealth, a loss of friends, seems at the moment unpaid loss, and unpayable. But the sure years reveal the deep remedial force that underlies all facts. The death of a dear friend, wife, brother, lover, which seemed nothing but privation, somewhat later assumes the aspect of a guide or genius; for it commonly operates revolutions in our way of life, terminates an epoch of infancy or of youth which was waiting to be closed, breaks up a wonted occupation, or a household, or style of living, and allows the formation of new ones more friendly to the growth of character.

Chapter: Spiritual Laws

Behind us, as we go, all things assume pleasing forms, as clouds do far off. Not only things familiar and stale, but even the tragic and terrible, are comely, as they take their place in the pictures of memory. The river-bank, the weed at the water-side, the old house, the foolish person,–however neglected in the passing,–have a grace in the past. Even the corpse that has lain in the chambers has added a solemn ornament to the house. The soul will not know either deformity or pain.

The whole course of things goes to teach us faith. We need only obey. There is guidance for each of us, and by lowly listening we shall hear the right word. Why need you choose so painfully your place, and occupation, and associates, and modes of action, and of entertainment? Certainly there is a possible right for you that precludes the need of balance and wilful election. For you there is a reality, a fit place and congenial duties. Place yourself in the middle of the stream of power and wisdom which animates all whom it floats, and you are without effort impelled to truth, to right, and a perfect contentment.

By doing his work, he makes the need felt which he can supply, and creates the taste by which he is enjoyed. By doing his own work, he unfolds himself. … Until he can manage to communicate himself to others in his full stature and proportion, he does not yet find his vocation. He must find in that an outlet for his character, so that he may justify his work to their eyes.

What a man does, that he has. What has he to do with hope or fear? In himself is his might. Let him regard no good as solid, but that which is in his nature, and which must grow out of him as long as he exists. The goods of fortune may come and go like summer leaves; let him scatter them on every wind as the momentary signs of his infinite productiveness.

What your heart thinks great is great. The soul’s emphasis is always right.
Over all things that are agreeable to his nature and genius, the man has the highest right. Everywhere he may take what belongs to his spiritual estate, nor can he take any thing else, though all doors were open, nor can all the force of men hinder him from taking so much. It is vain to attempt to keep a secret from one who has a right to know it. It will tell itself.

No man can learn what he has not preparation for learning, however near to his eyes is the object. A chemist may tell his most precious secrets to a carpenter, and he shall be never the wiser,–the secrets he would not utter to a chemist for an estate. God screens us evermore from premature ideas. Our eyes are holden that we cannot see things that stare us in the face, until the hour arrives when the mind is ripened; then we behold them, and the time when we saw them not is like a dream.

A man passes for that he is worth. What he is engraves itself on his face, on his form, on his fortunes, in letters of light. Concealment avails him nothing; boasting nothing. There is confession in the glances of our eyes; in our smiles; in salutations; and the grasp of hands. His sin bedaubs him, mars all his good impression. Men know not why they do not trust him; but they do not trust him. His vice glasses his eye, cuts lines of mean expression in his cheek, pinches the nose, sets the mark of the beast on the back of the head, and writes O fool! fool! on the forehead of a king.

Let me heed my duties. Why need I go gadding into the scenes and philosophy of Greek and Italian history, before I have justified myself to my benefactors? How dare I read Washington’s campaigns, when I have not answered the letters of my own correspondents? Is not that a just objection to much of our reading? … Rather let me do my work so well that other idlers, if they choose, may compare my texture with the texture of these and find it identical with the best.

Chapter: The Over-soul

In past oracles of the soul, the understanding seeks to find answers to sensual questions, and undertakes to tell from God how long men shall exist, what their hands shall do, and who shall be their company, adding names, and dates, and places. But we must pick no locks. We must check this low curiosity. An answer in words is delusive; it is really no answer to the questions you ask. Do not require a description of the countries towards which you sail. The description does not describe them to you, and to-morrow you arrive there, and know them by inhabiting them.

Who can tell the grounds of his knowledge of the character of the several individuals in his circle of friends? No man. Yet their acts and words do not disappoint him. In that man, though he knew no ill of him, he put no trust. In that other, though they had seldom met, authentic signs had yet passed, to signify that he might be trusted as one who had an interest in his own character.

The infallible index of true progress is found in the tone the man takes. Neither his age, nor his breeding, nor company, nor books, nor actions, nor talents, nor all together, can hinder him from being deferential to a higher spirit than his own. If he have not found his home in God, his manners, his forms of speech, the turn of his sentences, the build, shall I say, of all his opinions, will involuntarily confess it, let him brave it out how he will. If he have found his centre, the Deity will shine through him, through all the disguises of ignorance, of ungenial temperament, of unfavorable circumstance. The tone of seeking is one, and the tone of having is another.

The things that are really for thee gravitate to thee. You are running to seek your friend. Let your feet run, but your mind need not. If you do not find him, will you not acquiesce that it is best you should not find him? for there is a power, which, as it is in you, is in him also, and could therefore very well bring you together, if it were for the best. You are preparing with eagerness to go and render a service to which your talent and your taste invite you, the love of men and the hope of fame. Has it not occurred to you, that you have no right to go, unless you are equally willing to be prevented from going? … Every proverb, every book, every byword that belongs to thee for aid or comfort, shall surely come home through open or winding passages. Every friend whom not thy fantastic will, but the great and tender heart in thee craveth, shall lock thee in his embrace.