Perfect for you if:
- You wonder what kind of books Presidents and World Leaders keep by their sides.
- You’re looking for new tools and practices to build into your daily life.
- You’re new to Stoicism or “Meditations” is one of your favourite books.
“Meditations” is a collection of personal notes written by the author, Marcus Aurelius, to himself. These notes were never intended for publication and had two purposes:
- To define for himself a life philosophy and ideal character worthy of aspiring to.
- As an integral part of his struggle to live up to those two things.
In the process, Aurelius touches on some universal truths. Truths that still resonate with us almost two thousand years later.
The insights themselves are remarkable and inspiring but not unique. Instead, the power of “Meditations” is in both “Who” the author is and “How” they are written.
Who: Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180 AD) served as Roman Emperor from 161 – 180 AD. This is the age of the Imperial Cult. Roman emperors are divinely sanctioned authorities with almost limitless power and wealth. What’s more, Aurelius spent half (10 years) of his rule in brutal wars to defend the empire’s borders. Either factor was enough to drive many emperors to tyranny or madness – often both. Yet Aurelius’s humility and objectivity is staggering. He constantly reminds himself of his own mortality, insignificance and fallibility.
How: Just as impressive are the vulnerability, eloquence and pragmatism of Aurelius’s writing. It is philosophy without being philosophical. It is as accessible, quotable and practical. You can feel Aurelius’s struggle to make sense of the world around him. He repeatedly assaults the same themes, reframing them over and over. His striving reminds us that we all face the same journey though life, no matter who we are.
As a finished product Aurelius’s “Meditations” help us most obviously in two ways. They are:
- As a long-term compass. An ideal that can point us in the right direction when we feel lost.
- As a source of short term of inspiration. Providing reassurance, guidance and strength when most needed.
But the most important lessons from “Meditations” are not “What” but “How”. They are the daily practices we can bring into our own lives. Practices that help us define our own ideal and work through the obstacles to achieving it.
I bought several translations of “Meditations”. Many are free. The one linked above is not. It is, however, the best I have found. Gregory Hays keeps his translation as faithful to Aurelius’s original “Meditations” as he can. What’s more, he does so using clear and modern language that is easy and enjoyable to read. His introduction also gives fantastic context of the “Who” and “When” behind the work.
This crunch has three sections: Major Themes, Values to Live By and Practices to Start Today.
Aurelius revisits several themes throughout the “Meditations”. These include:
- Impermanence: Aurelius reflects frequently on mortality. Human life is ephemeral and fleeting. Even the memory of it fades. Striving for fame or immortality in this life or after it is vain and futile. Instead, seize the present moment.
- Cyclicality: Human nature stages the same play over and over through time and space – only the actors change. In particular, nature and its cycles of growth and decay are at the heart of many of Aurelius’s analogies.
- Fate/Causality: Like stoicism, Aurelius’s take is one of Compatibilism (also known as soft-determinism). Our path is fated but we can choose to go with the flow or be dragged along with it (to the same end). Aurelius spends some time exploring this idea in the context of acceptance and resignation to external events (que sera sera). Disclaimer: this is a simplification – see Google for more detail.
- Mindfulness: Perception begins with attention in the present moment to both the internal and the external. We cannot own the past or the future so it is pointless striving to hold on to them. Mindfulness also applies internally to our emotions and patterns of thought and behaviour. It is the first step in achieving…
- Objectivity: A position we believe to be objective is often already intertwined with our reactions and beliefs. Making good decisions means identifying and separating raw perception from interpretation. This struggle is a frequent topic of interest for Aurelius. I would argue that each of the “Meditations” is itself an attempt to return to a place of greater objectivity.
- Equality: Human nature is universal. We are all subject to the same drives and temptations. Aurelius reflects that under the same conditions, he is just as capable of any failing that he has observed in another. This insight is the foundation of understanding and patience.
- Hierarchy: All men may be the same but that doesn’t make them equal. 10 – 15% of the Roman population have been estimated to be slaves. Aurelius draws several analogies to reconcile his views on equality with the hierarchical reality of the Rome he ruled (sun vs. rain, captain vs. crew, doctor vs. patient).
- Civic duty / Justice: Aurelius does not believe in universal and inalienable human rights. He often reflects on the need for each citizen (including himself) to act for the good of the whole, even at individual cost. This view is more similar to a contemporary Chinese than American ideal.
Values to Live By
Throughout “Meditations” Aurelius lays out several values that he strived to live by.
They make for an inspiring read and a worthy goal for anyone to aspire to:
- Balanced / moderate: opposed to extreme views and actions (especially in politics or religion)
- Humble: having a modest estimate of one’s importance, accepting one’s own fallibility
- Simple: doing only what is necessary, speaking clearly
- Austere: not requiring comforts or luxuries; having a plain and unadorned appearance
- Accepting: receiving people and happenings as they are without striving against them
- Open: receptiveness to change or new ideas, especially in letting go of ones current beliefs
- Diligent (esp. in planning): having or showing care and conscientiousness in one’s work or duties
- Energetic: showing or involving great activity or vitality
- Persistent: not giving up in the face of adversity, however great
- Patient: able to accept delays, problems, or suffering without becoming annoyed or anxious
- Pragmatic: dealing with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations
- Mindful: consciously aware of internal and external circumstances in the present moment.
- Purposeful: having or showing determination or resolve towards a defined purpose
- Having integrity: the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles
- Dispassionate (esp. in pain, in anger): not influenced by strong emotion, and so able to be rational and impartial
- Silent (in thought, word and deed): ‘being’ over ‘doing’ or ‘having’, patience to observe clearly before acting, knowing when not to act at all and not drawing attention to oneself by ones actions
- Rational: based on or in accordance with reason or logic
- Cooperative: open and willing to be of assistance in working towards a common goal, working as part of a team
- Forgiving: feeling no anger about or not wishing to punish offences, flaws or mistakes
Disclaimer: Defining values is a tricky business. These definitions combine dictionaries with my own interpretation of “Meditations” (and inevitable biases). I’m very open to improvements and suggestions.
Practices to Start Today
Referring to “Meditations” is like looking up answers in a text book. It might let us know where we’re heading. It might even help us through a particular problem. What it won’t do is teach us to solve those problems by ourselves. For that, there’s no substitute for rolling up our sleeves each day and getting our hands dirty.
The most valuable things Aurelius gives us in his “Meditations” are not the answers. They are the tools that he used to solve the problems he faced. Like Aurelius, anyone can pick up those tools and learn to use them. Anyone can break and hone them, day-in-day-out against the challenges they face. We might not reach Aurelius’s level of mastery. We might not even come close. But we can all get closer.
- Simplify: Despite being a Roman Emperor, Aurelius slept on a simple camp bed. He avoided rich clothes and shunned excess. Remember that everything you own ends up owning you. It demands your two most precious resources: time and attention. Simplify wherever you can. My own life never became happier than when I reduced its contents to a single 40 litre backpack.
- Meditate (on paper). “Meditations” is the outcome of Aurelius’s greatest tool – making time each day to sit and think with a pen and paper. Do the same, even if you don’t feel emotional or overwhelmed. Think through the challenges you are facing. What are you sensing, thinking or feeling? What about the other people involved? Start by setting a timer for 15 minutes. Write whatever comes into your head. The only condition is that you cannot stop writing until the timer runs out. There is a kind of magic that goes on when we write by hand.
- Define your values. Our values are at the core of personal meaning. Knowing them, and choosing to act consistently with them gives any “What” a “Why”. In the first ‘book’, Aurelius identifies the values that he cherishes most in those around him. He devotes the “Meditations” to working how to apply these values throughout his life. What would people say about you if you were to die tomorrow? What would you like them to say? What values inspire you in the people around you? Take time to reflect on these questions and think on paper. As you go through your day, try to act as if you already had the values you aspire to.
- Reframe (“The obstacle is the way”). Whenever you come up against an obstacle think of it instead as an opportunity for growth. Better yet, consider that the obstacle might be part of an unconventional solution. They say that “there is no such thing as failure, only feedback”. Thomas Edison encapsulated this idea perfectly in his famous quip about the lightbulb – “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”.
- Practice Gratitude. It is impossible to feel jaded about the world around you when you are also grateful for it. Get started by writing just five things each day that you are grateful for on a piece of paper. You will be happier for it.
- Surround yourself with great people. You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Aurelius could have surrounded himself with suck-ups and yes men. Instead he surrounded himself with people who loved him and inspired him to be a better person. Surround yourself with people who love you and inspire you to be a better person. Life is too short to fill it with destructive relationships.
- Learn continuously. Aurelius’s early teaching was everything you would expect from a future Roman Emperor and he explicitly recommends sparing no expense for education. Despite his responsibilities as Emperor he continued to read widely and take extensive notes (much of the “Meditations” is filled with quotes from favourite authors). This dedication to life-long, continuous learning is clear throughout the “Meditations”.
- Serve others. Despite almost god-like status, Aurelius’s never excluded himself from his own philosophies. In particular, his writings on civic duty make it clear that he saw himself first and foremost as a servant of his people. In this regard, he was among the few not corrupted by the power and wealth of his position. Serve others. It is one of the most rewarding things we can do and one of life’s greatest sources of meaning.
“Letters from a Stoic”, Seneca – the original blog on Stoicism. Seneca’s letters to his friends are full of good, practical advice. His thinking and writing would come to influence Aurelius some 100 years later.
“Discourses and Selected Writings”, Epictetus – A bit harder to read than other books on this list but an excellent primer on all things Stoic.
“Man’s Search for Meaning”, Viktor Frankl. One of the greatest books of the modern age. Short, readable and powerful. Its insights are as profound as its subject matter is heart breaking. You can find my book crunch here.
“The Obstacle is the Way”, Ryan Holiday – Holiday is the most prolific and outspoken of the 21st Century’s “New Stoics”. “Meditations” is one of his top books and Aurelius’s fingerprints are all over his work. His books are both readable and powerful – this one is a good place to start.
The Daily Stoic, blog – one of today’s best source for all information related to Stoicism.