The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius was the Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180. Marcus Aurelius was known as one of the “Five Good Emperors” and was, indeed, the last of those. Having followed such Emperors as Caligula and Nero, Marcus Aurelius, a stoic general, fair but fierce, was well-respected in his time and remained so afterward, although his son Commodus thought he was weak (mistaking patience, poise, and temperament for weakness). My edition is the Penguin Classics Clothbound, which has both a brilliant introduction and exceptional end notes. 

The Meditations are essentially a collection of diary entries. Marcus Aurelius takes a philosophical and introspective approach to assessing his own personal and political life, including his relationships with family, friends, and teachers. He treats his daily and his whole life as a constant work-in-progress. One of the more unique aspects of this text is that they were never meant for public consumption, so one might argue that they have a rare honesty  and vulnerability in comparison with other classical texts.

When I first read the Meditations, I took them one at a time. This was a slow process, as each entry tends to be just a few lines in length, and there are hundreds of them. This time, I read them rather quickly, as a refresher/re-introduction to Stoic philosophy, which I am practicing much more practically and conscientiously this year (I am reading a variety of stoic writings but also engaging in a year-long daily stoic reading and writing exercise). Reading Marcus Aurelius was a helpful start because, like many of us (and probably more than most), as an Emperor and general, he was an extremely busy man. He felt the weight of the world on his shoulders and had to spend a lot of time on others’ needs. As a stoic, he often reminded himself to distinguish between what is necessary and what is frivolous, what he could control and what he could not; and he maintained perspective by writing daily, whenever he could find the time (usually in the morning or the evening).

In that spirit, I have been doing the same: reminding myself to control what I can, and to let go what I cannot. It has also been important to find time to write every day. Most of Marcus Aurelius’s writings seem to be reflections, which means he probably wrote them at night before bed; I have been trying to write briefly in the morning, pondering a particular stoic teaching and beginning my day with it in mind, and then writing briefly at night, reflecting on where I was successful or where I could do better. The exercises have been helpful in my personal and professional life so far, and thinking about them in context with one of the original and most prominent stoic philosophers has been an interesting experiment.

The Meditations are separated into twelve books, each with its own theme (sometimes tightly woven, sometimes a bit looser). They range from reflections on politics and his role as Emperor, to lessons learned from the important people in his life, to thoughts on religion and spirituality, atheism and the afterlife. Whether taking a single entry at a time, or one book at a time, or any combination thereof, the Meditations reveal the perpetual process of a thoughtful man determined to live a good life, to treat others better (though that was a daily struggle), and to find peace in the chaos.

Some of my particular favorite entries:

“It is ridiculous not to escape from one’s own vices, which is possible, while trying to escape the vices of others, which is impossible.” (7.71)

“Vanity is the greatest seducer of reason: when you are most convinced that your work is important, that is when you are most under its spell.” (6.13)

“Think of the whole of existence, of which you are the tiniest part; think of the whole of time, in which you have been assigned a brief and fleeting moment; think of destiny – what fraction of that are you?” (5.24)

“Fit yourself for the matters which have fallen to your lot, and love these people among whom destiny has cast you – but your love must be genuine.” (6.39)