The reflections and insights presented by Marcus Aurelius in his timeless classic, Meditations, are as relevant today as at the time of writing approximately two millennia ago. Dive in bravely in this meditation on life...
Disclaimer: Please note that this summary is offered for educational purposes only. If you are interested in reading the complete book please purchase it from the author.
Guest post courtesy of my friend Nikolay Petrov,
Psychology Research Assistant (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Book Review: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Back to the Future: Age-old Answers to Lifelong Questions
Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor from 161 to 180 A.D. In this book, "Mediations", Marcus contemplates daily on a question as old as time - "What does it mean to live a good life?"
But why should we care about what Marcus Aurelius has to say?
First, Marcus endured a great many difficulties in his life. As one historian remarked, Marcus Aurelius "did not meet with the good fortune that he deserved, for he was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign." However, this did not prevent him from becoming one of the most powerful and influential emperors of his time. As another historian summarizes, Marcus was the "most peaceful of warriors, a magnificent monarch whose ideal was quiet happiness in home life, bent to obscurity yet born to greatness, the loving father of children who died young or turned out hateful, his life was one paradox".
Second, the book itself is one of a kind. This book was not written for a larger audience, as most books are. Instead, Marcus would write in his journals each night before bed, where he contemplates life. This was his way to stay grounded and build an unshakeable foundation both in his life and his kingdom (see banner image above). The book was actually originally entitled "Ta eis heauton" which translates to "To Himself". Once his writings were found, they were quickly considered worthy of preservation due to the timelessness of Marcus' thoughts.
Daily reflection was among one of the practices that Stoicism would encourage. To remind oneself of simple, yet important, everyday truths was Marcus' way to stay humble, just, truthful and strong. Given that Marcus studied and practised Stoicism, this philosophy becomes a window through which we can better appreciate the incisiveness of the emperor's thought.
Setting the Stage: The Stoic Philosophy
In Stoicism, Nature is put on a pedestal. Living according to your true nature was considered the Virtue. In the Stoic philosophy, nature itself was divided into three main components: 1) Physics or that which deals with the universe, its laws and the problems of teleology; 2) Logic or the struggle to differentiate truth from falsehood, and 3) Ethics which deals with the application of the first two with the goal of living a happy life.
Two corollaries emerge from the Stoic philosophy: 1) a distinction between what is in one's control and what is not. For what is in one's control can be changed and what is not worth worrying about; and 2) the conceptualization of the universe as a whole and the importance of every man in maintaining that whole
However, it is worth noting that despite the wisdom that Marcus garnered from the Stoic philosophy, he is no Stoic himself. His meditations are not a treatise on the subject. Instead, Marcus intuited the good life. He reached his conclusions bottom-up: he first acted out the virtuous life and then mediated on it. His thoughts are not based upon deep intellectual inquiry, but rather a religious feeling.
Now that we've laid the foundations to understand Marcus' thought, I present some of the recurring topics in his book that illustrate Marcus' ideas about what constitutes a good life. The book itself is written in a non-linear fashion as it was not intended for an audience but just as daily reminders, hence an underlying structure is missing. The structure I came up with is to present the book's topics in temporal fashion in relation to life: I first deal with nature and the innate capabilities that we are born with and should abide by; then I explore Marcus' thoughts on the one thing that emerges first and stays with us a lifetime - our minds. Following that I inquire into what Marcus considered to be a virtuous life as a whole and how does one go about living it. Finally, I consider the end of life: Marcus' treatment of death and the shortness of life.
Nature, much like in Stoicism, too precedence in Marcus Aurelius' ideas of a good life. He considered nature as unified, interconnected, transcendental:
thou must consider the things of the world, not as a loose independent number, consisting merely of necessary events; but as a discreet connection of things orderly and harmoniously disposed of. There is then to be seen in the things of the world, not a bare succession, but an admirable correspondence and affinity
... and even all-encompassing:
The most compendious is that which is according to nature.
Marcus also considered change to be an inevitable part of nature, and hence an inevitable part of ourselves. Change allows the universe to grow and expand and so we, too, should embrace change for its creative potential and opportunity for growth:
Is any man so foolish as to fear change, to which all things that once were not owe their being? And what is it, that is more pleasing and more familiar to the nature of the universe?
And much like there are very high costs to pay if you go against your nature, it is also demanding on the soul to reject the change. To cling onto a pre-defined, dogmatic vision of life is to reject the path towards growth:
As he that is bitten by a mad dog, is afraid of everything almost that he seeth: so unto him, whom the dogmata have once bitten, or in whom true knowledge hath made an impression, everything almost that he sees or reads be it never so short or ordinary, doth afford a good memento
And nature is where happiness is to be found as well. All other daily preoccupations we have - intellectual, materialistic, hedonistic or otherwise - are doomed to fail to bring us happiness, for happiness is only found in that which is according to nature:
Thou hast already had sufficient experience, that of those many things that hitherto thou hast erred and wandered about, thou couldst not find happiness in any of them. Not in syllogisms, and logical subtleties, not in wealth, not in honour and reputation, not in pleasure. In none of all these. Wherein then is it to be found? In the practice of those things, which the nature of man, as he is a man, doth require.
Minds Have Great Power
In Marcus' thought, our minds and their capacity to reason are elevated to the same power as that of nature. For as he puts it:
To a reasonable creature, the same action is both according to nature, and according to reason.
But how is that possible at all? Marcus Aurelius, a religious man, considered nature to be divine and transcendental and yet he equivocates it with the reasoning capacities of mere mortal creatures? One possible answer is that Marcus, a dualist himself as most of his contemporaries, considered the mind, or the soul, to be connected to the divine and hence they possess great powers to change our conscious experiences. Two such powers can be found in his writings.
One 'superpower' of the mind was that you can easily reframe your conscious experiences to reduce your suffering. This is very much in line with the Stoic thinking. Getting rid of injustices, anxieties and sorrows is within your reach at any time, should you point your mind in the right direction:
Oh, wretched I, to whom this mischance is happened! nay, happy I, to whom this thing being happened, I can continue without grief; neither wounded by that which is present, nor in fear of that which is to come.
Another power our minds possess is their capacity to determine our happiness. Any circumstances can be overcome with the proper mindset:
Wheresoever thou mayest live, there it is in thy power to live well and happy.
The work of Viktor Frankl also attests for this superpower. For as Frankl puts it:
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
Because of such incredible abilities, Marcus Aurelius concludes that we should be mindful of how we treat our minds and only sow what we wish to reap:
We should always observe with great care and heed the inclinations of our minds, that they may always be with their due restraint and reservation, always charitable, and according to the true worth of every present object.
But one question arises: how many people actually live a good life? How many people are actually reasonable as to realize the nature of all things, the path to happiness, the power of our minds? This question also seems to turmoil Marcus Aurelius as he put it very eloquently:
If to understand and to be reasonable be common unto all men, then is that reason, for which we are termed reasonable, common unto all.
The Virtuous Life and the Path Towards It
One thing that Marcus Aurelius detests as a way to live a good life is to live in vanity, hedonism and materialism. Epicurean notions of moment-to-moment bodily pleasures and preoccupations with material objects can only bring you misery:
Now, that they say is best, which is most profitable. If they mean profitable to man as he is a rational man, stand thou to it, and maintain it; but if they mean profitable, as he is a creature, only reject it.
But then, what qualities constitute a virtuous life? To name but a few: being authentic to your true dispositions; being accepting of the way the world is; to be present; to be intellectually humble; to reflect daily on your activities; and to speak truthfully. The quotes below illustrate this in Marcus' thought:
As thou oughtest to prefer and to pursue after that good, which is thine own and thy proper good.
What is it that we must bestow our care and diligence upon? even upon this only: that our minds and wills be just; that our actions be charitable; that our speech be never deceitful, or that our understanding be not subject to error; that our inclination be always set to embrace whatsoever shall happen unto us, as necessary, as usual, as ordinary, as flowing from such a beginning, and such a fountain, from which both thou thyself and all things are.
If anybody shall reprove me, and shall make it apparent unto me, that in any either opinion or action of mine I do err, I will most gladly retract. For it is the truth that I seek after, by which I am sure that never any man was hurt; and as sure, that he is hurt that continueth in any error, or ignorance whatsoever.
the morning as soon as thou art awaked, when thy judgment, before either thy affections, or external objects have wrought upon it, is yet most free and impartial: put this question to thyself, whether if that which is right and just be done.
If it be not fitting, do it not. If it be not true, speak it not.
Following those principles (as opposed to dogmatic rules) is what constitutes a happy, virtuous life. Or, as Marcus summarizes it:
Herein doth consist happiness of life, for a man to know thoroughly the true nature of everything; what is the matter, and what is the form of it: with all his heart and soul, ever to do that which is just, and to speak the truth. What then remaineth but to enjoy thy life in a course and coherence of good actions, one upon another immediately succeeding, and never interrupted, though for never so little a while?
Death and Life
The shortness of life and the coming of death is a topic Marcus returns regularly in his thought. But instead of spiralling into nihilism, he considers death liberating, almost like a rite of passage. For death is that which motivates us to live our lives in a virtuous way, to be happy. Put shortly:
To comprehend all in a few words, our life is short; we must endeavour to gain the present time with the best discretion and justice.
Conclusions and Reflections
Marcus Aurelius' thoughts bring together philosophic teachings, religious intuitions and unique life challenges to retrospectively describe the good life. Writing down his thoughts in his book allowed him to remind himself of those truths on a daily basis.
Reflecting on his answers, it seems to me that despite the fact that Marcus' answers are millennia-old, we haven't got much further than he did. We still know that living according to your nature will bring you great happiness; we've further explored our minds' capacities; now, we quantifiably know that authenticity, mindfulness, reflections and truth can increase one's satisfaction and fulfilment and we've seen cultures for whom death is indeed treated as a rite of passage and something to be celebrated.
Yet, we still seem to struggle in the practice of such 'obvious' truths. We stray further from the virtuous life and cross one of Marcus Aurelius' dictums:
Never esteem of anything as profitable, which shall ever constrain thee either to break thy faith, or to lose thy modesty; to hate any man, to suspect, to curse, to dissemble, to lust after anything, that requireth the secret of walls or veils.
It makes you wonder why... Why is it that we don't practise what we seem to know? Why was St. Paul forced to conclude that "though I know the good, I do not do the good." ?
Book Review ends -----
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Martin Stefanov Petkov
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