The meditations of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus: A Guide to Stoic Living

Meditations Marcus Aurelius [pdf]

Who is Marcus Aurelius?

Born March 31st AD 169, Marcus Aurelius was the son of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and his second wife, Faustina the Younger. Marcus’ paternal grandmother was Tertulla and his maternal grandfather was Commodus. Marcus would later acknowledge his distant relationship with his paternal grandfather, but said that “no man ever regretted having so many distant relatives” in his C3rd B.C. Meditations.

His siblings were Lucius Verus and Commodus. Commodus would later become emperor under his own name (Commodus). His sister was Allectus, a princess of Lydia. Marcus entered the army at the age of ten, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. In 211, he became the commander of the Praetorian Guard.

What is the Marcus Aurelius Meditations?

The Marcus Aurelius Meditations is a book of short, meditative, concise thoughts on Stoic concepts and matters. The key text is the sixth (and final) book, which consists of ten short sections, or “meditations”, and is followed by a postscript (when Marcus is about to die). Each of the ten meditations opens with a standard Stoic question or three, which we will look at more deeply later. Each entry then closes with a brief admonition for the reader, to follow Stoic principles (in this case “self-control”). And then at the end of each entry, Marcus includes a brief meditation on what he learned from the current contemplation.

Marcus’ Meditations is a series of 45 sayings, or maxims, that he attributed to himself as a young man. These maxims are divided into three books and reflect both aspects of his Stoic thinking and his attitude toward other people: Book I is addressed to his friend Quintus, who encourages Marcus to treat other people well: I have sought that other self, and found it… It is a matter of which comes first, the benefit or the gain… Do not seek to evade the consequences of a death that would not benefit you, so that your death would not harm you, but by the very act of escaping its ill consequences, it has been reduced to something neutral. If you avoid such a death, it will not be at all again.

Why You Should Read Them

Marcus Aurelius meditates in a way that would be familiar to many contemporary business leaders. Anyone who’s struggled to achieve or retain employee motivation or stay ahead of the curve in an ever-changing business environment can appreciate his warnings about Not having a clear idea of the current climate or the conditions that made them successful, and thus losing sight of those same conditions or falling back on old, dangerous ways of thinking. Not struggling to find people and ideas that don’t just speak to what they already know, but actually “fit” with what they want to do or create. Staying away from what he calls “all that is useless or holds us back” (συνέργασις – synégasmos) so that “we may do more than what we thought we were capable of” (Φωτής τὰ πέθηκαν καὶ ἄρτον).

3 Reasons Why The Meditations Are Important

The first is that Marcus seems to validate the importance of Stoic philosophy. He frequently states that he is not an orator or philosopher but a Stoic. He quotes a book by his old mentor and teacher, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, and repeatedly states his willingness to turn his back on or even discontinue his instruction and teacher at any time. Marcus even says that “For I must confine myself to Stoic doctrine for the present as I am not yet able to undertake difficult treatises.” (1) The second is that Marcus’ approach to Stoicism was profoundly different from the one then taking the stage. There had been various attempts to invent modern philosophic frameworks that had circulated for about a century in the Roman Empire. Some were harsh, others were excessively lighthearted and even absurd.

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Who Should Read It?

Marcus is widely seen as one of the finest Stoics and, as part of his critique of the passions, he urges readers to consider these emotions as not an actual temptation to act against your will. Marcus also argues that those who could resist the passions are blessed, and he lists people like Seneca and even Plato as being such blessed people. How to Read it “I must learn how to write and how to compose with a will to make those with whom I have to deal as free as I am from passion.” —Marcus Aurelius The first thing to know about Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations is that he is using the form of Stoic philosophy, called Stoicism, in his work. This is not a philosophy that is based on abstract premises that don’t address the concrete details of life and its problems.

How to read the Meditations?

Although it’s tempting to immediately start an internet search to try to identify the most salient points in Marcus’ Meditations to help us improve ourselves, a better course of action might be to start with some “straightforward” reading and come back later to fill in the blanks. Here are the two readings I most frequently find in the Meditations (not necessarily the most insightful): Individual Meditations: After the battle of Actium, Caesar’s heir, Octavian (later Augustus), led the army that conquered the known world. He left Marcus on Capri after his decisive victory there.

What is the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius?

If Marcus had come to philosophy as a sophomore in college, he would have likely seen it as a topic that needed to be intellectually tested or re-examined. This would have been especially true if he hadn’t already learned something from some solid philosopher(s). But there is another view that is important to consider when we discuss the character of Marcus. Though there is some evidence that Marcus was most influenced by Cicero and Seneca, as well as by his favorite author and teacher, Epictetus, there is also more evidence to support that a crucial element of Marcus’ philosophical development had to do with his reading of Virgil.

How does he write his Meditations?

Much of Marcus’ writing consists of him writing on an empty scroll, most likely from morning till night, several times a day. But that blank scroll provides him with a clever way to organize his thoughts and form a coherent picture of reality. Marcus also recognizes that reality is something he is not privy to, and so it is important that he seek out (and meet) these beings and realities. Writing, to Marcus, is like going to the gym, or undertaking a physical task. He never seems to look away from the blank scroll, and he doesn’t allow himself to waste his time or his powers of perception. At each moment of reflection, he is either going to meet with a god, or to meet with another person or being of real existence.

Why don’t people read it today?

Almost everyone I know, from philosophers to CEOs, read, underlining and committing various thoughts to their records. At the other extreme, many people don’t bother to read a single book after they’ve read what is available in the public domain, so can only benefit from reading a few of these that are “not accessible.” What makes Marcus’ Meditations difficult to find is that Marcus is now and has always been less well known than his teacher, Stoic philosopher and emperor Marcus Aurelius (the future Emperor Marcus Aurelius), and has only recently started to be studied. We wouldn’t know about Marcus’ Meditations if he hadn’t written his autobiography, which contains the first known treatment of Stoicism.

Marcus Aurelius Meditations Summary

Ask yourself: how many journals of campaigning emperors have I read this year? If the answer is none, you’re in for a treat: The Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius, also happens to be one of the most celebrated expositions of Stoic philosophy.

Today, we peek inside the secret journals, never meant to be read by anyone else, of the last Good Emperor of the Roman Republic. Despite their origin, the journals have been read, and continue to be read, by countless individuals seeking insight into living better.

This post does not replace actually reading the book, but it is intended to inform you what it’s all about before you even crack open the first page. The idea being, that leaves you free to focus on the subtle details and pithy expressions found therein.

How I approached reading The Meditations was to ask myself “what is he trying to say?” What follows is my multi-pronged answer to this question, examined through the concept of “themes”

Themes and Connections

Marcus emphasizes learning tranquillity by living in the present, reflecting on the larger perspective, accepting your lot, and letting go of your fear of death and desire for posthumous fame. He exhorts sympathy and self-sufficiency, as well as spurning both pain and pleasure, or rather, the ego that affects all of these things.

These themes are related. You see the larger perspective when you let go of your ego, which you do by living in the present. And when these things are true, it’s easier to be sympathetic and to accept your lot. It’s easier to fear death less when you see the larger perspective and to see how worthless fame is. Just as it’s easier to get richer if you’re already rich, it’s easier to improve yourself if you’re already good by building on what you have.

The Larger Perspective

By “larger perspective”, I refer to many profound realizations that have occurred to me, some of which Marcus the Emperor also realized, which I thought was cool because it means maybe we could have been buddies. At least I’d like to think so. I confess I got some of my ideas from Carl Sagan. Namely, consider that in everything there is and all of the time, you are very little.  That all people in all the ages and nations of Earth have all had much the same life: have married, had children, cultivated food plants, warred, desired power, and loved.

Certain realizations such as this aren’t just intellectual; the marvel and wonder found through deeper analysis, gaining expanded perspective, contains a world of profound spiritual power. Marcus marvels that a man can simply ‘deposit seed’ in a womb and a child will grow, or that we can pass food down our throat and it then becomes perception and motion. He wasn’t always optimistic though; far more often, he laments how ugly the world is and wonders if life is really all that great—and he lived the life of an emperor!

Death and The Present

Here is the Stoic prescription for everyday annoyances. If you see someone struggle with poverty or a noisy child, for example, or find yourself in some kind of a fight, just remember this: you’ll both be dead soon. Memento mori. And if you really do it, you’ll soften and find sympathy for them every time. Not only will you both be dead in a few decades, but it is something neither of you can avoid and that you both fear.

But what is death? If it’s merely a new sensation, then it’s a new kind of life–which isn’t so bad, right? But here’s the kicker: if it’s the lack of sensation, then there’s no pain and you should not fear it. In my view, it basically boils down to the fact that you can’t think ‘oh no, I’m dead!’ if you’re like a doornail. Now, it may seem to be obscenely obvious, but what does death, exactly, deprive you of?

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According to Marcus, only the present, because the present is all we ever have. The past and the future are just memories and speculations taking place in the present. This message is commonly repeated in modern self-help, perhaps the best example of which is The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.

Since each person has only this “indivisible point”, she should live as if each act were here last, which to Marcus means something rather different than most people’s idea of what it means. He reminds you that your life becomes shorter every day and that you may die at any moment. And therefore, that you should get on with living.

So how should you go about living?

How To Live and The Work in Life

But then the question is, how should you go about living? Firstly, always do your duty and live according to reason and nature, according to Marcus the Stoic. Don’t conjecture what others are thinking of you, but only care that what you do is just, sincere, consistent, and not to serve fame, pleasure, or pain. Rather than saying to someone that you are determined to be fair to them, be fair and good and it will show.

Rather than thinking or talking about the kind of man that a good man ought to be, be a good man (or woman), without affectation, and others will see your virtue. In other words, do your duty and reveal yourself through action rather than words.

As for what you work at, Marcus recommends that you occupy yourself with few things while still doing what is necessary. He also exhorts you to never be too busy for someone and to examine things calmly as if you had all the time in the world. In this latter aspect, he perhaps unwittingly repeats yet another one of the 48 Laws of Power, formulated by Robert Greene two thousand years later.

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Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic, and that is why he insists that nothing, even sickness, should deflect you from your duty. Your inner work should be on shaping your character daily with contentment, simplicity, and modesty to achieve a ‘tranquillity that another man cannot upset’, unlike anything physical (which implies the possibility of degrading).

Finally, if you are genuinely wrong, then you should gladly change. For if you really seek the truth, you won’t allow your ego to get in the way—something scientists and philosophers in particular appreciate.

Ego and Fame

The ego is a funny thing: to some extent, a thing is only painful because you judge it to be painful, and think about how it’s going to be painful. If you make a mistake and then think “geez, what was I thinking? Now I’m going to suffer the consequences”, you will feel more pain. He emphasizes again and again that it is our opinions of things that cause us pain rather than the thing itself. More to the point, it is in our power to change our opinions (another theme commonly represented in the field of personal development).

This is not “the ego” in the sense of overt defence mechanisms, but a subtler point of what you pay attention to and let pass through you–reminiscent of Eastern spirituality and meditation. He says that we should not add anything to our sensations but merely let them pass over us. In order not to suffer, you shouldn’t think of things that you don’t have as much as what you do. Nor get attached to what you have, nor overvalue it. And you should not be offended by a person’s faults, since you yourself have faults just like everyone else, so don’t be conceited.

Among conceits, seeking fame is perhaps the greatest of all, despite that posthumous fame is worthless, Marcus argues. Firstly, even posthumous fame is short and fades away, so that even those who were great in their day quickly become unknown.

Secondly, even you are ‘known’ for some short time, it is just a name, and perhaps a few acts–a shadow of the life that you actually lived.

Thirdly, future men and women will be just as they are now, not knowing who they are, nor having the leisure to care about those who have already passed away.

Fourthly, or perhaps three-and-a-half-ly, these people will themselves die also after their short while.

He comments that it is strange that people set a value on being known to posterity, to people they have never seen and will never see. If you seek fame, he says, let it be among your contemporaries.

A Quick Note: Where I Disagree

I suppose I should point out that I don’t agree with everything. He claims that no love of novelty is a virtue, that he is poor who needs another, that crimes of passion or desire are worse than those of anger, and I disagree with all of these things. He thinks it of paramount importance to consider how you would answer at the end of your life to the statement that you never wronged a person in deed or word, but I don’t.

And most annoying of all, he believes, evidenced in at least a dozen places, that what happens is meant that way, and that no one is put in a situation they are unprepared by nature to deal with.

Marcus Aurelius Meditations quotes

“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”

Marcus Aurelius

“Do every act of your life as though it were the very last act of your life.”

Marcus Aurelius

“Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look.”

Marcus Aurelius

“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive — to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”

Marcus Aurelius

“The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it.”

Marcus Aurelius

“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

Marcus Aurelius

“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”

Marcus Aurelius

 “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”

Marcus Aurelius

“The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.”

Marcus Aurelius

“Let not your mind run on what you lack as much as on what you have already.”

Marcus Aurelius

“Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.”

Marcus Aurelius

Conclusion

Despite these shortcomings, Marcus Aurelius has so much to say that I feel like I cheated him. I wish a blog post was more congenial to moving beyond general ideas, but truth be told, perhaps this is sufficient for all practical purposes.

As examples of what I didn’t include: I noticed running throughout the book was his implicit question as to what makes life worth living, and his answers. Or sentiments similar to Christian ones even though he was an enemy of Christianity, including his general emphasis on how the flesh and this material world are bad. If you want to learn more about what he has to say, I guess you’ll just have to read the book for yourself!

I’ll just close with a few miscellaneous nuggets of insight that don’t fit in any particular category especially well:

  • Let your principles be brief and fundamental.
  • Use plain discourse.
  • Don’t act and speak as if you were asleep, or merely as you have been taught.
  • Passing on what the Pythagoreans said: look each morning at the stars, and notice how they are constant and unpretentious. In his time, he could write that “All things are the same, familiar in experience [..] Everything now is just as it was in the time of those whom we have buried.” But that’s not true anymore with our technologies advancing rapidly! Isn’t that amazing?
  • Finally, has everything to do with those who aspire to deserve the title “writer”:

“Neither in writing nor in reading wilt thou be able to lay down rules for others before thou shalt have first learned to obey rules thyself. Much more is this so in life.”

~ Marcus Aurelius
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