‘Meditations’ is the collected thoughts and writings of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 121 – 180) who ruled the Roman Empire from 161 until his death. Don’t be put off by the title - this is not a religious or spiritual text (at least not in the way we would think of it today). ‘Meditations’ refers more to the Greek and Roman approach to philosophy: it had to be practiced – thought upon or ‘meditated’ upon – regularly, so that it may become an ingrained and unconscious response to life (much like a jiujitsu technique). For them, philosophy was a practical guide on how to live a good life.
“What is your profession? Being a good man.” (Book 11.5)
The Meditations could be considered a self-help book. The aphorisms (sayings, reminders) contained within it are easily remembered and applied, even to our modern lives some 2000 (!) years later. For this alone the Meditations is worthwhile. However, what elevates the Meditations above all other such books is the status of its author: as Emperor of the Roman Empire, Marcus Aurelius was literally the most powerful man in the world. And yet in the Meditations he exposes all of his self-doubt, self-criticism and insecurities. Why would he do so? Because the Meditations was his private diary, a self-help book for himself. Marcus Aurelius had no intention of anyone else ever reading it. This raw, unbiased insight into the mind and emotions of such a powerful man is what makes the Meditations truly remarkable.
“I have often wondered how it is that everyone loves himself more than anyone else but rates his own judgement of himself below that of others.” (12.4)
However, it’s not just that he was a powerful man, but that he was also apparently a good man, well educated, thoughtful, a lover of life and nature and beauty in all its forms. Marcus Aurelius was trained in and followed the Stoic school of philosophy. Though it is difficult to separate Marcus Aurelius from Stoicism when discussing the Meditations, this isn’t the place for a detailed analysis of Stoicism, which has undergone somewhat of a resurgence in popularity in recent years (and no, going without your phone for a whole day doesn’t make you a Stoic. Or stoic).
The typical view of being “stoic” – solid, dependable, unfazed under pressure and hardship – is derived from the Stoic philosophy. However, the Stoics themselves took a much broader view of the universe and man’s place in it and took solace from recognizing that our lives – and by extension our daily troubles - were mere specks in the grand scheme of time and space. But to see the bigger picture was not to ignore the many facets of what it meant to be human:
“How absurd – and a complete stranger to the world – is the man surprised at any aspect of his experience in life!” (12.13).
In other words, to recognize that human beings are capable of any behaviour, in ourselves and in others, is therefore to be unfazed when they do occur. So, what seems like Stoic coldness is really preparedness and acceptance.
The 12 ‘books’ (chapters) of the Meditations have no real structure or narrative: after all, it’s not a novel. The jottings appear random at first, but repetitive themes begin to emerge. This is in keeping with the purpose of the diary, which is a mental exercise to focus Marcus Aurelius on a Stoic approach to life. Though these themes repeat they are expressed in slightly different ways. An example of this is Aurelius’ strategies (again, remember that he is speaking to and reminding himself) for dealing with the opinions and judgements of others.:
“Do not waste the remaining part of your life in thoughts about other people.” (3:4)
“The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.” (6.6)
“Leave the wrong done by another where it started.” (7.29)
“Do you want the praise of a man who curses himself three times an hour? Do you want to please a man who can’t please himself?” (8.53)
“What sort of people are they when eating, sleeping, coupling, shitting, etc…?” (10.19)
“Even if you burst with indignation, they will still carry on regardless.” (8.4)
Or, as they say today: “Haters gonna hate.” Again, you must remind yourself who is doing the talking: as Emperor, literally millions of people had an opinion of him. He needed every piece of mental armour he could forge.
The Eastern warrior philosophy of the samurai and of Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ has inspired many in the West. Yet in Marcus Aurelius we have a genuine warrior, an emperor, no less, who led his armies in numerous campaigns. Meditations is therefore full of martial metaphors:
“The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, in that it stands ready for what comes and is not thrown by the unforeseen.” (7.61)
Or one of my favourites:
“’Better at throwing his man’: but not more public spirited, or more decent, or more disciplined to circumstance, or more tolerant of neighbour’s faults.” (7.52). It’s something to keep in mind when practicing jiujitsu: our abilities (or inabilities) on the mat do not define us.
The great thing about the Meditations is that you can dive in anywhere. A bit like reading your horoscope, you will tend to find the message you are looking for. To constantly remind yourself that you are reading first-hand the deepest thoughts of an Emperor of Rome is to be Eternally (a prize to whoever gets the pun there) amazed by the Meditations. I’ll leave off with the aphorism which occurs in many guises throughout the Meditations, and which I think best sums up the Stoic philosophy and the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius:
“That all is as thinking makes it so – and you control your thinking.” (12.22)
There are several translations of the Meditations. I recommend the Penguin Classics version because each of the aphorisms are separated by line spacings. You can pick it up at most bookstores for about $12. And that’s good because I also recommend that you write all over it: underline, circle, highlight any of the aphorisms which speak to you. And many will.