A famous quote by Rene Descartes stated that; “The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries”. Don’t you just love reading good books? Here I was ‘having a conversation’ with the famous Marcus Aurelius reading notes written by his hands over 2100 years ago. It can make you take for granted reading the Bible. Meditations is one of the most significant books ever written by a head of State. The Meditations are a collection of philosophical thoughts by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121 - 180 Ce), covering issues such as duty, forgiveness, brotherhood, strength in adversity and the best way to approach life and death. The Meditations have inspired thinkers, poets and politicians since their first publication more than 500 years ago.
The Meditations is basically Marcus's personal journal. It's a record of thoughts that is carefully composed, but it was never intended for a wider audience.
Marcus Aurelius is considered one of the most important Stoic (a person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining) philosophers. What today we call the Meditations take the form of a personal notebook, Aurelius called them “Writings To Myself.”
The three most powerful points I took from the book were;
All things fade into the storied past, and in a little while are shrouded in oblivion. Live in the here and now
Get up each morning and do good work. We should act naturally and contribute to society, unconcerned about the reproach of others
It is a mistake to value the opinion of other over the love for ourselves
Meditations was written over 21 centuries ago, yet its relevance somehow increases when we know how ancient it is.
A student of the Stoic philosophy, Marcus Aurelius refused to be made miserable by the difficulties of life. Stoicism was a Greek school of thought originating around 300 BC. In simple terms, it taught that submission to the law of the universe was how human beings should live, and emphasised duty, avoidance of pleasure, reason, and fearlessness of death. A Stoic would also have full responsibility for his actions, independence of mind, and pursue the greater good over their own.
Marcus proclaimed that “All things fade into the storied past, and in a little while are shrouded in oblivion". Even to men whose lives were a blaze of glory this comes to pass; as to the rest, the breath is hardly out of them before, in Homer's words, they are 'lost to sight alike and hearsay'...To what, then, must we aspire, asks Marcus? This, and this alone: the just thought, the unselfish act, the tongue that utters no falsehood, the temper that greets each passing event as something predestined, expected, and emanating from the One source and origin.
The Meditations tells us that to despise, avoid or judge a person is simply an obstruction of Nature's law. The realisation that to move human relations to a higher level we must do the opposite of these things, formed the basis of the emperor's thought.
On every page of the book is this theme of accepting things and people how they are, not what we would like them to be.
The great worth of the Stoic philosophy is its ability to help put things into perspective so you can remember the things that matter; the Meditations is, if you like, an ancient and noble Don't Sweat The Small Stuff. The person who can see the world as it really is also carries the ability to see beyond that world. Yes, we are here and we have a job to do, but there is the feeling that we came from another place, and will eventually go back to it. Life can be sad and lonely, one thing seemingly after another, but this should never dull the basic wonder at our existence in the universe:
Below is a short summary of each book of Meditations.
Book I Aurelius thanks those to whom he is indebted. He thanks his grandfather for teaching him to be candid, modest, and even-tempered; his father for teaching him to be humble, calm, and frugal; his mother for teaching him to be generous and non-materialistic; and his teachers who taught him the value of hard work, self-discipline, equanimity, rationality, humour, and tolerance. From his teachers he also learned to love practical philosophy, instead of metaphysics, logic and the vanity of the Sophists. He also thanks his wife for being affectionate.
In Book II Aurelius reminds us that each day we will meet some terrible people. But we have faults too, so we shouldn’t be angry with them. For we are all just bits of blood, bones and breath; our life is fleeting; our bodies will decay. As for death, it is nothing to fear; it can’t hurt us. But the most important part of us is our minds. We shouldn’t let them be slaves to selfish passions, quarrel with fate, or be anxious of the present or afraid of the future. We can’t guarantee fame or fortune, but we can keep our minds calm and free from injury, a state superior to both pleasure and pain. Freedom is the control of our minds.
In Book III Aurelius tells us to be mindful of little things like cracks in a loaf of bread, the texture of figs and olives, and the expressions of wild animals - even mundane things have charm he says. But we shouldn’t gossip or speculate about what others say or do. Instead, think and talk only of things you would not be ashamed of if they were found out. Think and talk with sincerity and cheerfulness, and there will be a kind of divinity within you. There is nothing more valuable than a mind pursuing truth, justice, temperance, fortitude, rationality and the like. So be resolute in pursuit of the good.
In Book IV Aurelius tells us that we can always find solitude in our own minds. If our minds are serene, we will find peace and happiness. As for how others view us, we have little control. But virtue is still virtue even if it isn’t acknowledged. Remember, one day we live, the next we are dead. So act virtuous, use your time well, and be cheerful. Then, when you drop from life’s tree, you will drop like a ripe fruit.
In Book V Aurelius says we should get up each morning and do good work. We should act naturally and contribute to society, unconcerned about the reproach of others. And don’t ask or expect payment or gratitude for doing good deeds. Instead, be satisfied with being like a vine that bears good fruit. Virtue is its own reward.
In Book VI Aurelius disavows revenge—better not to imitate injury. We should do our duty, act righteously and not be disturbed by the rest, for in the vastness of space and time we are insignificant. Think of good things and control your mind.
In Book VII Aurelius advocates patience and tolerance. Nature works like wax, continually transforming - so be patient. People will speak ill of you no matter what you do, but be tolerant. Evil people try our patience and tolerance, but we can remain happy by controlling our response to them.
In Book VIII Aurelius argues that being disconnected from humanity is like cutting off one of your own limbs. Instead, live connected to nature and other people. No matter what you encounter maintain a moderate and controlled mind. If you are cursed by others, don’t let it affect you anymore than your cursing the spring affects the springtime.
In Books IX, X and XI Aurelius argues that we should be moderate, sincere, honest, and calm. If someone reports that you are not virtuous, dispel such notions with your probity, and use humour to disarm the worst people.
In Books XII Aurelius asks why we love ourselves best, but so often value the opinion of others over our own. This is a mistake. Remember too that the destiny of the greatest and worst of human beings is the same—they all turn to ashes. Do not then be proud, but be humble. Die in serenity. As Aurelius wrote from his tent, far from home and never to return: “Life is warfare and a stranger’s sojourn, and after fame, oblivion.”
What I took from it.
The Meditations is not just another self-help book with easy answers - the very theme of it is imperfection. We can never know exactly why things happen, why people act the way they do, but it is not up to us to judge anyway; there is a larger meaning of events and lives which escapes us.
This knowledge itself is a comfort. This is old world philosophy still relevant in today's modern world and the human condition. It is an excellent reading and best enjoyed in a quiet room sitting comfortably on a good chair in order to get into the appropriate, reflective state of mind. Loved it!
Below are some highlights;
Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.
You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.
Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.
It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.
Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.
People who labour all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward are wasting their time - even when hard at work.”
You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think
You can’t lose either the past or the future; how could you lose what you don’t have?
The present is all that they can give up, since that is all you have, and what you do not have, you cannot lose.
Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see
Every event is the right one. Look closely and you’ll see
What happens to everyone - bad and good alike - is neither good nor bad
The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the colour of your thoughts.