A review of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius repeats himself. He doesn’t use the same words, but he circles the same handful of ideas over and over. His Meditations contain twelve books, and across them he returns again and again to the natural order of the universe, the inevitability of death, the transient nature of existence, and the rightness of his reasoning. He speaks to himself, an imperative you will, and by the end of the book there can be no doubt that he is at least in part writing these things down because he’s still convincing himself they’re true.

Marcus Aurelius was the emperor of Rome for nearly twenty years around 200AD, and his Meditations are strictly personal writings that aren’t quite a diary and aren’t quite an affirmation journal, occupying a space somewhere in between. Across the pages his the texture of his days and their challenges certainly comes through, but the narrative is essentially a set of reminders he gives himself regarding how to live his life.

It’s easy to see why he is revered. He was exacting with himself, striving to achieve a lofty philosophical ideal, while at the same time struggling with his own limitations as a human and his obvious disinterest in the duties in front of him. Here is the most powerful man in the world living as humbly as he can, dealing with his responsibilities with as much care as he can muster despite the vast annoyingness of most people he must deal with, trusting in the providence of the Gods to deliver him no more suffering than he can bear until he is winked out of existence and forgotten. Add in a regular supply of whiskey and it sounds like most of the working men I know.

Marcus Aurelius practiced a form of stoicism, as far as we can tell, and just based on reading these meditations the gyst of it seems to be pretty similar to the Vulcans on Star Trek. A stoic believes in seeing things as they truly are, which means freeing oneself of material indulgences and pretty much all emotions. He recognizes that emotions are natural, but also that they’re a waste of time and tend to obscure the truth from the person feeling it.

This sounds foreign to me. Right out of the gate he’s listing lessons he learned from other people’s behaviors, and he says, “And to be the same in all circumstances—intense pain, the loss of a child, chronic illness.” Which is an extraordinary state to aspire to, if one even could, and as I read through the book I kept coming back to the question of why one would want to? I want to see this as a kind of buddhist serenity, but it just reads to me as indifference. And just inevitably not something someone is going to be able to pull off.

Marcus believed in Nature, that things were ordered by the gods, providence, and that it was our job to play our role in the proceedings, using our own character to guide our behavior toward our natural duty. He was a Roman through and through, and there is no mentioning the importance of duty because it is so self-evident, which is frankly pretty nice to hear coming from the Emperor, who could pretty much fuck around if he wanted to and chop off the head of any complainers. (See Seutonius.)

But he struggled with this core belief throughout. Because if the universe isn’t ordered by providence, then it is just a bunch of random atoms bouncing around. And he admits that he doesn’t know, which befits someone whose faith is bound up in reason. But that idea—providence or atoms—returns again and again as he contemplates death. He knows that the next life with either be some new existence also ordered by the Gods, or else it will be nothing as his atoms gets spread back through the world. Either way, nothing to worry about!

He also believed that perceptions were key to freedom. Everything came down to how you looked at a thing, and he was a strong believer in ones ability to rise above slights and injuries by perceiving them as inevitable products of nature—as he puts it you should no more get angry at a fig tree for secreting juice. His command to himself: “Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed.” He had a low opinion of people, and yet his role required him to be in constant contact with all kinds of people, so he clearly spent huge amounts of energy insulating himself from their idiocy.

And yet despite his low opinion of people, he also believed that they were inherently good, and that you could count on them to always at least try to do the right thing. The problem was that they were perpetually confused as to what the right thing might be. I like this idea, that “no one does the wrong thing deliberately,” just as I liked it when Aristotle said it. But between the three of us, I’m still not quite convinced it’s true.

In his effort to see the world as it truly is, he had a pretty harsh view of the reality of life itself, seeing the mind as a spark of divinity that he possessed and cherished, but which rode around in a sack of rotting meat. “A mess of blood, pieces of bone, a woven tangle of nerves, veins, arteries.” And with that in mind, he was constantly reminding himself that death is inevitable, nothing to worry about, and in many ways a sweet relief from the suffering of this world.

And life itself for him consisted only of the present moment. He liked to contemplate the vast infinity of time stretching behind and before us, and he used this as a technique to reduce his stress with the reminder of our collective insignificance. For all that time around us, we only ever get to experience a single moment, now. And yet, for all its dubious significance, Marcus was all about maximizing the value and impact of this moment, the perpetual now that we are all graced with. He exhorts himself to work, to avoid distraction, to live as if today is the last day, and rise to his duty with all the energy he can muster.

Although he is a perpetual downer in this book, it’s hard not to be picked up by the whole thing, by his inherent optimism, his insistent belief in his own ability to rise to any challenge he faces. We each have our own ideal that we pursue, and we each get beaten down by the world. And just like Marcus we have to reconcile these two, on a daily basis, for the rest of our lives, each moment we get to live it. It’s isn’t always pretty, but as Marcus tells himself over and over, it’s the only option we’ve got.

According to Marcus, soon enough this will all be over and everyone you knows will be dead and forgotten but he gives us an exercise to make the most of now: pretend you just died and your life is over; but wait, here’s a reprieve. Now: start living the way you’re supposed to.

Ok, go.

Highlighted Passages

Book One

And to be the same in all circumstances—intense pain, the loss of a child, chronic illness.

No bathing at strange hours

To show intuitive sympathy for friends, tolerance to amateurs and sloppy thinkers.


Not to be constantly correcting people, and in particular not to jump on them whenever they make an error of usage or grammatical mistake or mispronounce something, but just answer their question or add another example, or debate the issue itself (not their phrasing) or make some other contribution to the discussion—and insert the right expression, unobtrusively.

You could have said of him (as they say of Socrates) that he knew how to enjoy and abstain from things that most people find it hard to abstain from and all too easy to enjoy.

That my children weren’t born stupid or physically deformed.

Book Two

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.

A mess of blood, pieces of bone, a woven tangle of nerves, veins, arteries.

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 could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.

The present is the same for everyone, its loss is the same for everyone; and it should be clear that a brief instant is all that is lost. For you can’t lose either the past or the future; how could you lose what you don’t have?

Book Three

You boarded, you set sail, you’ve made the passage. Time to disembark. If it’s for another life, well there’s nowhere without gods on that side either. If to nothingness, then you no longer have to put up with pain and pleasure, or go on dancing attendance on this battered crate, your body—so much inferior to that which serves it.

Stop drifting. You’re not going to re-read your Brief Comments, your Deeds of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, the commonplace books you saved for your old age. Sprint for the finish. Write off your hopes, and if your well-being matters to you, be your own savior while you can.

Welcome with affection what is sent by fate.

Book Four

No one does the wrong thing deliberately.

That sort of person is bound to do that. You might as well resent a fig tree for secreting juice.

Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed.

Don’t feel harmed—and you haven’t been

The tranquility that comes when you stop caring what they say.

Behave with justice and see things the way they really are.

Unrestrained moderation

“A little wisp of soul carrying a corpse.”—Epictetus

Time is a river, a violent current of events ,glimpsed once and already carried past us, and another follows and is gone.

Human lives are brief and trivial. Yesterday a blob of semen, tomorrow embalming fluid, ash.

To be like the rock that waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls around it.

Book Five

Just as you overhear people saying that “the doctor prescribed such and such for him” (like riding, or cold baths, or walking bare-foot…), say this: “Nature prescribed illness for him.” Or blindness. Or the loss of a limb. Or whatever. There “prescribed” means something like “ordered, so as to further his recovery.” And so too here. Qhat happens to each of us is ordered. It furthers our destiny.

Not to feel exasperated, or defeated, or despondent because your days aren’t packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human—however imperfectly—and fully embrace the pursuit that you’ve embarked on.

The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts. Color it with a run of thoughts like these:

Anywhere you can lead your life, you can lead a good one.

Things gravitate toward what they were intended for.

In a sense, people are our proper occupation. Our job is to do them good and put up with them.

But when they obstruct our proper tasks, they become irrelevant to us—like sun, wind, animals. Our actions may be impeded by them, but there can be no impeding our intentions or our disposition. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting.

The impediment to action advances action

What stands in the way becomes the way.

So other people hurt me? That’s their problem. Their character and actions are not mine. What is done to me is ordained by nature, what I do by my own.

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.

Book Six

We find ourselves in a river. Which of the things around us should we value when none of them can offer a firm foothold?

Like an attachment to a sparrow: we glimpse it and it’s gone.

Just as the arena and the other spectacles weary you—you’ve seen them all before—and the repetition grates on your nerves, so too with life. The same things, the same causes, on all sides.

How much longer?

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 wheen virtues are visibly embodied in the people around us, when we’re practically showered with them.

You don’t have to turn this into something. It doesn’t have to upset you. Things can’t shape our decisions by themselves.

Practice really hearing what people say. Do your best to get inside their minds.

Book Seven

Straight, no straightened.

Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.

It’s quite possible to be a good man without anyone realizing it. Remember that.

It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own.

Book Eight

You have to assemble your life yourself—action by action. And be satisfied if each one achieves its goal, as far as it can. No one can keep that from happening.

Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it—turning it to its purpose, incorporates it into itself—so, too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal.

Give yourself a gift: the present moment.

People out for posthumous fame forget that the Generations to come will be the asme annoying people that they know now. And just as mortal. What does it matter to you if they say x about you or think y?

Book Nine

Do what nature demands. Get a move-on—if you have it in you—asnd don’t worry whether anyone will give you credit for it. And don’t go expecting Plato’s republic; be satisfied with even the smallest progress, and treat the outcomes of it all as unimportant.

We can discard most of the junk that clutters your mind—things that exist only there—and clear out space for yourself:

…by comprehending the scale of the world

…by contemplating infinite time

…by thinking of the speed with which things change

When you run up against someone else’s shamelessness, ask yourself this: is a world without shamelessness possible?

No.

Then don’t ask the impossible. There have to be shameless people in the world. This is one of them.

The same for someone vicious or untrustworthy, or with any other defect. Remembering that the whole class has to exist will make you more tolerant of its members

Another useful point to bear in mind: What qualities has nature given us to counter that defect? As an antidote to unkindness it gave us kindness. And other qualities to balance other flaws.

What else did you expect from helping someone out? Isn’t it enough that you’ve done what your nature demands? You want a salary for it too? As if your eyes expected a reward for seeing, or your feet for walking

Book Ten

Stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and ask yourself: Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore?

Leaves that the wind drives earthward; such as the generations of men.

Book Eleven

To acquire indifference to pretty singing, to dancing, to the martial arts: Analyze the melody into the notes that form it, and as you heard each one, ask yourself whether you’re powerless against that. That should be enough to deter you.

The same with dancing: individual movements and tableaux. And the same with martial arts.

And with everything—except virtue and what springs from it. Look at the individual parts and move from analysis to indifference.

Apply this to life as a whole.

As you move forward in the logos, people will stand in your way. They can’t keep you from doing what’s healthy; don’t let them stop you from putting up with them either. Take care on both counts. Not just sounds judgements, solid actions—tolerance as well, for those who try to obstruct us or give us trouble in other ways.

Because anger, too, is weakness, as much as breaking down and giving up the struggle. Both are deserters: the man who breaks and runs, and the one who lets himself be alienated from his fellow humans.

Someone despises me.

That’s their problem.

Mine: not to do or say anything despicable.

To live the good life:

We have the potential for it. If we can learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference.

How much more damage anger and grief do than the things that cause them.

Book Twelve

Everything you’re trying to reach—by taking the long way round—you could have right now, this moment. If you’d only stop thwarting your own attempts. If you’d only let go of the past, entrust the future to providence, and guide the present toward reverence and justice.

It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinions than our own.

The foolishness of people who are surprised by anything that happens. Like travelers amazed at foreign customs.

That before long you’ll be no one, and nowhere. Like all the things you see now. All the people now living.

To be angry at something means you’ve forgotten:

That everything that happens is natural.

That the responsibility is theirs, not yours.

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