Marcus Aurelius [121–180 AD] left behind a legacy as of the most respected emperors in Roman history. Born into a wealthy and politically prominent family, Marcus Aurelius was a dedicated student in his youth, drifting naturally into the philosophic way of life. Later, the emperor would find himself engaged in multiple military campaigning against the barbarians that threatened Rome’s northern frontier—and it was during these campaigning years that Marcus wrote his famous Meditations. A set of private writings that showcased the essence of Stoicism, a philosophy that emphasises reason and self-restraint—and it is these very writings that we will be exploring today—glimpsing into the mind of a great man that is no longer with us, in that long lasting search for timeless wisdom.
Capable Men of History Series: A bite-sized motivational collection of the thoughts and lessons of a selected assortment of capable men throughout history.
The frontiers of the battlefield set the scene for the composition of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius—These profound insights of his, were most certainly never intended for public viewing and merely offered the emperor the opportunity to explore his deepest thoughts on life—the essence of which are ethical and metaphysical. What does it mean to live a good life? Why are we here? How should one cope with adversity? Not only have these ancient note’s escaped the privacy of the emperor’s original intent, but his meditations have now successfully stood the test of time and formulated into one of mankind’s best self-help books.
I would implore thinkers and anybody reading this blog with a serious interest in personal development to get their hands on a well translated version of this book for self reflection. I’m personally fond of Gregory Hays’ A New Translation. However, in the meantime I’m going to provide you all with some of my favorite insights from one of the last of the so-called Five Good Emperors.
At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work—as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”— But it’s nicer here… So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?
—But we have to sleep sometime…
Agreed. But nature set a limit on that—as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit. You’ve had more than enough of that. But not of working. There you’re still below your quota.
You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you. People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash or eat. Do you have less respect for your own nature than the engraver does for engraving, the dancer for the dance, the miser for money or the social climber for status? When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts.
Is helping others less valuable to you? Not worth your effort?
Do external things distract you? Then make time for yourself to learn something worthwhile; stop letting yourself be pulled in all directions. But make sure you guard against the other kind of confusion. People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward are wasting their time—even when hard at work.
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, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable. You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life? If you can manage this, that’s all even the gods can ask of you.
Remember how long you’ve been putting this off, how many extensions the gods gave you, and you didn’t use them. At some point you have to recognize what world it is that you belong to; what power rules it and from what source you spring; that there is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.
The mind is the ruler of the soul. It should remain unstirred by agitations of the flesh—gentle and violent ones alike. Not mingling with them, but fencing itself off and keeping those feelings in their place. When they make their way into your thoughts, through the sympathetic link between mind and body, don’t try to resist the sensation. The sensation is natural. But don’t let the mind start in with judgments, calling it “good” or “bad.
Someone despises me. That’s their problem.
Mine: not to do or say anything despicable.
Someone hates me. Their problem.
Mine: to be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them. Ready to show them their mistake. Not spitefully, or to show off my own self-control, but in an honest, upright way. Like Phocion (if he wasn’t just pretending). That’s what we should be like inside, and never let the gods catch us feeling anger or resentment. As long as you do what’s proper to your nature, and accept what the world’s nature has in store—as long as you work for others’ good, by any and all means—what is there that can harm you?
On The Mind
“Focus on what is said when you speak and on what results from each action. Know what the one aims at, and what the other means.
The mind doesn’t get in its own way. It doesn’t frighten itself into desires. If other things can scare or hurt it, let them; it won’t go down that road on the basis of its own perceptions.
Let the body avoid discomfort (if it can), and if it feels it, say so. But the soul is what feels fear and pain, and what conceives of them in the first place, and it suffers nothing. Because it will never conclude that it has.
The mind in itself has no needs, except for those it creates itself. Is undisturbed, except for its own disturbances. Knows no obstructions, except those from within
Against our will, our souls are cut off from truth.
Truth, yes, and justice, self-control, kindness…
Important to keep this in mind. It will make you more patient with other people.
For animate beings, “harmful” is whatever obstructs the operation of their senses—or the fulfillment of what they intend. Similar obstructions constitute harm to plants. So too for rational creatures, anything that obstructs the operation of the mind is harmful.
Apply this to yourself. Do pain and pleasure have their hooks in you? Let the senses deal with it. Are there obstacles to your action? If you failed to reckon with the possibility, then that would harm you, as a rational being. But if you use common sense, you haven’t been harmed or even obstructed. No one can obstruct the operations of the mind. Nothing can get at them—not fire or steel, not tyrants, not abuse—nothing. As long as it’s “a sphere… in perfect stillness.
It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own. If a god appeared to us—or a wise human being, even—and prohibited us from concealing our thoughts or imagining anything without immediately shouting it out, we wouldn’t make it through a single day. That’s how much we value other people’s opinions—instead of our own.
On the Good Life
Treat what you don’t have as nonexistent. Look at what you have, the things you value most, and think of how much you’d crave them if you didn’t have them. But be careful. Don’t feel such satisfaction that you start to overvalue them—that it would upset you to lose them.
You take things you don’t control and define them as “good” or “bad.” And so of course when the “bad” things happen, or the “good” ones don’t, you blame the gods and feel hatred for the people responsible—or those you decide to make responsible. Much of our bad behavior stems from trying to apply those criteria. If we limited “good” and “bad” to our own actions, we’d have no call to challenge God, or to treat other people as enemies.
“Pointless bustling of processions, opera arias, herds of sheep and cattle, military exercises. A bone flung to pet poodles, a little food in the fish tank. The miserable servitude of ants, scampering of frightened mice, puppets jerked on strings.
Surrounded as we are by all of this, we need to practice acceptance. Without disdain. But remembering that our own worth is measured by what we devote our energy to.”
Have I done something for the common good? Then I share in the benefits. To stay centered on that. Not to give up
Whether it’s atoms or nature, the first thing to be said is this: I am a part of a world controlled by nature. Secondly: that I have a relationship with other, similar parts. And with that in mind I have no right, as a part, to complain about what is assigned me by the whole. Because what benefits the whole can’t harm the parts, and the whole does nothing that doesn’t benefit it. That’s a trait shared by all natures, but the nature of the world is defined by a second characteristic as well: no outside force can compel it to cause itself harm. So by keeping in mind the whole I form a part of, I’ll accept whatever happens. And because of my relationship to other parts, I will do nothing selfish, but aim instead to join them, to direct my every action toward what benefits us all and to avoid what doesn’t. If I do all that, then my life should go smoothly. As you might expect a citizen’s life to go—one whose actions serve his fellow citizens, and who embraces the community’s decree.
On Poor Hygiene
Don’t be irritated at people’s smell or bad breath. What’s the point? With that mouth, with those armpits, they’re going to produce that odor—But they have a brain! Can’t they figure it out? Can’t they recognize the problem? So you have a brain as well. Good for you. Then use your logic to awaken his. Show him. Make him realize it. If he’ll listen, then you’ll have solved the problem. Without anger.
If they’ve made a mistake, correct them gently and show them where they went wrong. If you can’t do that, then the blame lies with you. Or no one.
Don’t ever forget these things:
The nature of the world.
How I relate to the world.
What proportion of it I make up.
That you are part of nature, and no one can prevent you from speaking and acting in harmony with it, always.
Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it: Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see. The span we live is small—small as the corner of the earth in which we live it. Small as even the greatest renown, passed from mouth to mouth by short-lived stick figures, ignorant alike of themselves and those long dead.
People try to get away from it all—to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: 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. Especially if you have other things to rely on. An instant’s recollection and there it is: complete tranquillity. And by tranquillity I mean a kind of harmony.
Frightened of change? But what can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you take a hot bath and leave the firewood as it was? Eat food without transforming it? Can any vital process take place without something being changed?
Can’t you see? It’s just the same with you—and just as vital to nature.
Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces—to what is possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel. As a fire overwhelms what would have quenched a lamp. What’s thrown on top of the conflagration is absorbed, consumed by it—and makes it burn still higher.”
When you need encouragement, think of the qualities the people around you have: this one’s energy, that one’s modesty, another’s generosity, and so on. Nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visibly embodied in the people around us, when we’re practically showered with them.
It’s good to keep this in mind.
Not to assume it’s impossible because you find it hard. But to recognize that if it’s humanly possible, you can do it too.
Suppose that a god announced that you were going to die tomorrow “or the day after.” Unless you were a complete coward you wouldn’t kick up a fuss about which day it was—what difference could it make? Now recognize that the difference between years from now and tomorrow is just as small.
A trite but effective tactic against the fear of death: think of the list of people who had to be pried away from life. What did they gain by dying old? In the end, they all sleep six feet under—Caedicianus, Fabius, Julian, Lepidus, and all the rest. They buried their contemporaries, and were buried in turn.
Our lifetime is so brief. And to live it out in these circumstances, among these people, in this body? Nothing to get excited about. Consider the abyss of time past, the infinite future. Three days of life or three generations: what’s the difference?
“People who are excited by posthumous fame forget that the people who remember them will soon die too. And those after them in turn. Until their memory, passed from one to another like a candle flame, gutters and goes out. But suppose that those who remembered you were immortal and your memory undying. What good would it do you? And I don’t just mean when you’re dead, but in your own lifetime. What use is praise, except to make your lifestyle a little more comfortable?”
Words once in common use now sound archaic. And the names of the famous dead as well: Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Dentatus… Scipio and Cato… Augustus… Hadrian and Antoninus, and… Everything fades so quickly, turns into legend, and soon oblivion covers it. And those are the ones who shone. The rest—“unknown, unasked-for” a minute after death. What is “eternal” fame? Emptiness. Then what should we work for?
Only this: proper understanding; unselfish action; truthful speech. A resolve to accept whatever happens as necessary and familiar, flowing like water from that same source and spring.