I finally read this book cover-to-cover. I have been familiar with Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations for years and selectively read passages in school and on my own accord. The book and its message never really kept me in thrall. After all, I also grew up reading the philosophies that emanate from the East (Buddhism, Vedanta, etc.) and held these in great esteem.
But if you paid attention to the recent literary zeitgeist, Marcus and stoicism are in vogue. There’s a bevy of young professional writers and readers who espouse this school of thought. The fountainhead of this movement is likely Ryan Holiday, who I know and have worked with before. He’s a remarkable writer and teacher who has injected the wisdom of antiquity into modern mediums such as Instagram & Twitter.
I wasn’t convinced to read let alone become a devotee Meditations immediately. We don’t listen to doctors from antiquity, so why should we hold philosophers from this era in such high regard? Well, some of these thinkers have had their ideas tested over time. Scholars and critics over millennia have opined on Marcus’ insights, and his wisdom is indeed timeless.
By Marcus Aurelius
Here are 7 takeaways:
- Read the best translation
There are several (even free) translations of Meditations. But start with the Gregory Hays’ one because he uses modern language so that you can better understand the key concepts. Also, Hays sets up the book with a compelling and fascinating introduction. He places Marcus in his time and context.Marcus wrote this book as more of a personal diary, so he may have been mortified that everyone has been reading his personal thoughts for thousands of years. What he wrote has become something of a guidebook, as Hays puts it:
But philosophy also had a more practical dimension. It was not merely a subject to write or argue about, but one that was expected to provide “design for living.” — a set of rules to live one’s lives by.
- Why so stoic?
Marcus’ philosophy is that of stoicism, a philosophy that originates from Greece but also flourished in Rome. Among the key tenets is the world is organized according to a certain system. And what matters most is not what happens to you, but how you respond. Indeed, self-reliance is central to this philosophy, and thinking in this way requires disciplined thought and at times rigorous diligence.
According to this theory, man is like a dog tied to a moving wagon. If the dog refuses to run along the wagon he will be dragged by it, yet the choice remains his: to run or be dragged. In the same way, humans are responsible for their choices and actions…
Or put another way:
It is…not objects and events but the interpretations we place on them that are the problem. Our duty is therefore to exercise stringent control over the faculty of perception, with the aim of protecting our mind from error…We were made, Marcus tells us over and over, not for ourselves but for others…
- Change is constant
Marcus often uses the imagery of a river to illustrate how people and our surrounding are constantly in flux. Even our memories which we think are snapshots of time are mutable with our changing perceptions as we move through life.
The world is maintained by change — in the elements and in the things they compose…We cannot step twice into the same river….Time is a river, a violent current of events, glimpsed once and already carried past us, and another follows and is gone.
- Memento Mori
Perhaps the most moving passages for me are about death. It’s coming for all of us, and it’s totally natural. One shouldn’t feel anxiety or scared of demise. But instead, we should accept it with grace and even honor. That we have such a short time on earth should ultimately animate how we live. We start as a “blob of semen” and end as “embalming fluid, ash.”
Marcus asks what happens to the rich and famous from a bygone era? They’re all dead. And so will those among us — everyone will die. So why do we pursue glory or admiration from future generations? It doesn’t matter.
What truly matters is embracing what we have – the current moment. That is all we have. The transience of life is an ongoing mantra throughout these passages. It can feel depressing at time to read but it’s something that Marcus felt deeply, and it’s something that can inspire us to take action, to seize the moment.
You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think…Because dying, too, is one of our assignments in life. There as well: “to do what needs doing.”
Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.
The book ends with this reflection:
So make your exit with grace – the same grace shown to you.
- Focus on the task at hand
Because life is short and transient, we must focus on what is ahead of us. We can only affect the present moment and give to it our full attention and disciplined action.
Concentrate every minute like a Roman — like a man – on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can — if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you…You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life?
Choosing how you respond is a key message of Marcus. It’s not what happens — it’s how you think, respond, act.
So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevails is great fortune…So other people hurt me? That’s their problem. Their character and actions are not mine….The best revenge is not to be like that.
- Don’t worry what others think
Marcus was the emperor and had to obviously pay attention to what others thought – senators and citizens alike. This is a useful activity, to pay attention to issues that concern the public well being. But otherwise, you really have to focus on yourself and pay little attention to what others think. Remember that our time here on earth will soon be over, so worry about your own thoughts and actions. And don’t live for the applause of other people. You will likely be forgotten. And that is ok. “They all die soon — praiser and praised, remember and remembered.”
Don’t waste the rest of your time worrying about other people — unless it affects the common good. It will keep you from doing anything useful. You’ll be too preoccupied with what so-and-so is doing, and why, and what they’re sating, and what they’re thinking, and what they’re up to, and all the other things that throw you off and keep you from focusing on your own mind.
At the same time, one shouldn’t be mean or dismissive of others. Instead, “be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.” You need not lose your temper. Simply show others how to be with grace and kindness. Everyone is human. Anger is a type of weakness.
It’s difficult not to see the similarities between Marcus and the wisdom of sages from the East. His focus on personal detachment is evocative of Buddhism. That he reminds himself not to pursue worldly pleasures but to live humbly is reminiscent of Buddha. And how about these lines?
Above all, you’ll be free of fear and desire…Each of us lives only now and this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see.
You can get away from it anytime you like. By going within. Nowhere you can go is more peaceful — more free of interruptions — than your own soul.
Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary.”
This reminds me of the Buddhist pearl that before you speak consider if it’s true, kind, and necessary. That there is overlap between Stoicism and Buddhism is not entirely surprising. Wisdom that is timeless can also be universal and ubiquitous. We can hear the same insights voiced by different people over the generations and across geographies.
It’s up to us to enact these principles and get on the path of self-discovery & self-realization.