‘If There Are Gods’ : A Bogus Quote From Marcus


Often attributed to Marcus Aurelius

The quotation embedded in the image at right is often attributed to Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 161-180 CE, the words said to come from Meditations, a series of private writings by Aurelius which he likely never intended to be public. For searchability reasons, the quote is as follows:

“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.”

I’m including this meme in my series Silly Meme Saturday, not because the quotation itself is silly or incorrect — as has been the case with most of the others — but because it qualifies as misinformation, with which the internet is full. Incorrectly attributing words and phrases to dead famous people seems as common today as it ever was, despite the average person’s greatly increased ability (via the internet) to verify or debunk these misquotations.

Why don’t we do it? Obviously, some of us do do it, but just as obviously not everyone does — otherwise these apocryphal quotations wouldn’t exist.

In this case, there is no evidence that the above words came from Aurelius, either in any of the English translations of Meditations or in any other written works from antiquity. It appears this quotation never appeared in print prior to 2009, and it appears to have originated on the internet.

As others have pointed out on various blogs, Aurelius himself likely never would have said such a thing; in fact, other verifiable writings of his contradict at least some of this spurious quotation. For example: “Soon you will have forgotten all things: soon all things will have forgotten you” is something Aurelius actually wrote. It directly contradicts the fake quotation’s assertion that your life “will live on in the memories of your loved ones”. It is also known that Aurelius was a polytheist, never doubting the existence of gods for himself. For example, the following phrase is his: “But Gods there are, undoubtedly, and they regard human affairs…” He did use the parenthetical phrase, “if indeed they do not exist” at least once, but only as part of a larger argument and never as part of a passive conclusion.

Creating, posting, liking, or sharing spurious quotations (or other types of misinformation) is irresponsible at best.

However — and this is a big however — the actual quotation is worth looking into. It’s a simplified form of the Atheist’s Wager, which is a philosophical response to the nonsense that is Pascal’s Wager. Both the spurious quotation above and the Atheist’s Wager conclude — taking different paths — that “living a good life” is the optimal course, regardless of the existence of gods. While the Atheist’s Wager posits eight possibilities, the fake Aurelius quote lists only three:

• There are just gods
• There are unjust gods
• There are no gods

In the first case, the just gods will reward a life lived well. In the second case, in which the gods could be seen as enemies, there is still no reason to avoid goodness. In the third case, there is no harm in living a good life.

Of course, there are logical problems with this train of thought. The biggest, as is often pointed out, are the questionable definitions of “good” and “just”. As it turns out, the gods of various religions require different things from people, and different people have varying opinions on which alleged actions of these gods are “just”. A person could “live a good life” according to her own definition of “good”, only to find out that a God (believed to be just by other people) had a different definition of “good”. For example, some god claims require human sacrifice (example), while others prohibit it outright (example), and — in the cases of the previous two examples — the same religion can require it sometimes, and prohibit it at other times.

Since almost no one practices human sacrifice anymore, perhaps a better example is how to deal with gay people. A great number of us believe it is “good” to ensure equal rights, including the rights to marry and adopt children, for all citizens — including gay people — and further, that it’s “good” to prohibit discrimination against them. Others, large numbers of them as a matter of fact, think it’s “good” to deny those same rights to gay people, and further, to explicitly allow discrimination against them. If just gods exist, which “good” will they reward?

And which brand of “justice” will these gods practice? Many people believe it was “just” for the God of the Old Testament to drown every living creature on Earth, leaving alive only eight humans and two of each kind of animal in a 500-foot boat. Others of us strongly believe such an action — if it occurred — was not just.

So I conclude that, regardless of the quotation’s origin, its sentiment — “live a good live” — is nice, but ill-defined. Almost all humans I’ve known believe they are good people, or at least are trying to live a good life, and — in my observation — that actually appears to be true — according to each person’s definition of “good”.

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To the pedantic among you, yes, I misused the word “quote” in the headline of this entry. Generally, “to quote” is a verb while “quotation” is the noun. At least that was once the case. As much as grammarians attempt to draw a distinction between the two, it is no longer completely true. Oxford English Dictionary now defines quote as a verb and a noun, due to common usage.
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3 Comments
  1. I have read Meditations cover to cover – my copy is full of highlighter marks I made. When I want to feel really enriched, my go-to reading is Nietzsche, Camus, and Aurelius.

  2. Wil C. Fry says:

    Having since read Meditations, I can confirm that the above quotation isn’t in there.

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