If you are unfamiliar, Meditations is a series of personal journals by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus. The book itself is split into twelve smaller books. It’s written to himself on his Stoic beliefs and his lifetime of trying to live by them. This is the impression of an initial read-through of the work.
When most people think of a stoic lifestyle, emotionless, po-faced and hard hearted are what usually come to mind. And while there are some elements of this involved with Stoicism, it is deeper than a surface scan would lead you to believe.
Stoicism is more about living a good life, accepting reality for what it truly is, being happy with what you have and being aware that our lives are very brief. This doesn’t mean just accepting your lot. No. It means accepting it, but looking for ways to be better.
There is so much information packed within this small book, it’s hard to digest much of it in one readthrough. It will require a few read throughs during a lifetime to glean the most from it. Little bits of the philosophy will drip out of the pages and trickle into your mind with each reading.
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius on living a good life
Aurelius was intent on living his life as best he could. Being emperor could have been a fairly easy gig for him, if he wanted it to be. It was a leadership position of inheritance. He didn’t have to consider the ethical and moral ramifications of his actions, he was emperor. But he strove for something higher than that and on many levels achieved it, though he would never let himself believe that.
“In this world there is only one thing of value, to live out your life in truth and justice, tolerant of those who are neither true or just.” Marcus Aurelius
Your thoughts make you
Aurelius often returned to the theme of the potential of the mind. He believed that the mind was our most powerful tool. He also believed that our daily thoughts shaped who we are. This is an idea that has been reworded and reused through many-a-modern ‘self-help’ book since. Probably because there’s deep wisdom in it. Whatever you think predominantly about will probably exhibit itself is some form in your life.
“The soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts.” Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius on emotions
Stoics have a reputation for being stern and somewhat void of emotions. From reading Meditations you can understand it to a degree. While a non-Stoic might fly off the handle about something trivial, say lack of an ironed shirt in the morning before work, a practising Stoic would take a more measured approach. A Stoic would realise that this is the reality of the situation, accept it, and look for a way to fix it (quickly ironing a shirt!). So the explosive emotional reaction to the aforementioned situation is a stark contrast to the calm, measured reaction.
While this example is silly – though many people lose their cool over lack of ironed clothes at key moments! – it translates to a much larger scale. How would you deal with the loss of a loved one? The theft of your personal property? A broken heart? Your own quickly approaching demise? If we can literally choose to emote in a different or even less explosive way, then we’re more in control of our emotions and our lives.
Being ‘devoid of emotion’ in a Stoic sense, is more of a thought-through, controlled reaction to the same situation.
“How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.” Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius on death
Aurelius was quite obsessed with death. And probably for good reason. He would have been surrounded by it on a regular basis. His reign over the Roman Empire was during a time of great upheaval as the Roman frontiers were being contested on multiple fronts. He had to command huge armies and would have lost and had killed many troops. He was no stranger to death. But instead of shying away from it, and fighting against it’s inevitability, Aurelius embraced it.
He realised that life is so short-lived, that no matter how famous, successful or rich you are, you (and all your accomplishments) will be forgotten to the sands of time when you die and probably quite quickly. Everyone you know will at some point cease to exist. This snapshot of how and where we are living will soon fade into memory.
While this can seem quite a depressing view, there is a sense of freedom that comes from it. We are lucky to be here in this moment, right now. That chasing fame is not something that will make you happy in the long run. Marcus understood how brief our lives are, he used that knowledge as a strong lifetime motivator to live a full life.
“When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love …” Marcus Aurelius
And so, like many books full of knowledge and meaning (and not originally written in the modern English we use today) study is necessary. After one read through and listen (here is the Librivox audiobook version, it’s free) time is needed to meditate on the contents and digest everything you can.
On my initial read through I would have been lucky to maybe absorb 10% of the depth of this book. I’ve only examined the extremely broad strokes of content. One striking feeling I take away from my initial reading is that all things are transient. Everything we hold dear to ourselves in this moment, shall one day be gone. Friends, family and material possessions. And that’s ok. If this is the case, then it should free our minds from all the mental anguish we place on them. Need a new car. Do you really? My house is too small? Is it really? I must have the latest ‘xyz’ gadget. Probably not.
It’s in the examination of why we want these things that answers start to appear. Broken down to its fundamentals, we usually want something external to fulfil an internal need. And this is not a bad thing. It just is. But if we’re not aware of it, then it can take over our lives. Aurelius was constantly aware of the briefness of life, and that in the grand scheme of things, these little obsessions are trivial. Focus on what’s important. Be a good man (or woman) and leave the world a better place than when you found it.
This is a book I will come back to again and again.