Meditations, written nearly two thousand years ago by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, is one of the most influential books in Western philosophy. It deserves years of study. I’ve read it just once.
So I won’t be “reviewing” this book in the normal way. I’ll refrain from critiquing the writing style or the flow of idea. And I won’t be giving my usual unsolicited feedback either — that would be an act of, well, hubris.
But I do want to share my impressions of the book, what I learned and how it impacted me.
Regular readers of this blog (bless you!) may remember that, a few months ago, I reviewed Eric Weiner’s wonderful book The Socrates Express (book, review). In it, Weiner explores the lives and ideas of fourteen philosophers. The very first chapter is about Marcus Aurelius and stoicism and getting out of bed each morning. I had heard of Marcus Aurelius and stoicism before but I didn’t know much about them. The book intrigued me. Then a friend suggested listening to The Daily Stoic, a podcast written and produced by Ryan Holiday.
Anyway this stoic slippery slope led me to Meditations.
By Marcus Aurelius, translated, and with an introduction, by Gregory Hays
Modern Library, New York, 2002
I read the Modern Library edition translated by Gregory Hays. Hays provides a lengthy and useful introduction which sets the context for the book. He covers Marcus Aurelius’ life and times, and the prevailing cultural and philosophical ideas, including an overview of stoicism.
Meditations is not really a book in the conventional sense. It’s essentially a collection of Marcus Aurelius’ journals, written, so far as anyone knows, between 170 and 179 CE. The entries are short, often a single sentence, rarely longer that a couple of paragraphs. He’s writing notes and reminders to himself, sometimes encouraging, sometimes scolding himself. Though Meditations is divided into twelve short books, there’s no apparent organization within or between them. Marcus – everyone seems to call him by his first name – would probably be horrified that anyone is reading his scribblings today. Or maybe he wouldn’t care. After all, he was a stoic.
These days, when we describe someone as stoic, we mean they’re able to endure suffering and adversity calmly and without complaint. But that only hints at the full meaning of stoicism as a philosophy.
The ancient stoics, according to Hays, believed that “the world is organized in a rational and coherent way.” One of the more profound implications of this belief is that most of what happens to us during our lives– say, for example, a pandemic — is entirely outside our control. Since these events occur as part of an ordered universe, they must be good. The only rational course is for humans to accept them without complaining. One event in particular which Marcus repeatedly stresses we should not complain about, nor fear, is death.
We can control our actions, however. Here the stoics believe that we have a duty to be active in our communities and in the world. We should gracefully accept the destiny that the universe has assigned to us and devote our thoughts and our energies to fulfilling it.
A few meditations
Meditations was never intended to be a textbook on stoicism, but you can certainly learn a lot about stoicism reading it. You can learn a lot more too, about life and living and work and standing up straight.
Here are a few excerpts from Meditations. They’re surprisingly modern. And practical. The numbers refer to book and entry.
5.1: “At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: I have to go to work – as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for – the things I was brought into the world to do?”
2.1: “Concentrate every minute like a Roman – like a man – on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions.”
6.19 “Not to assume it’s impossible because you find it hard. But to recognize that if it’s humanly possible, you can do it too.”
On living fully:
7.56: “Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.”
12.1: “And if, when it’s time to depart, you shunt everything aside except your mind and the divinity within … if it isn’t ceasing to live that you’re afraid of but never beginning to live properly … then you’ll be worthy of the world that made you.”
Here’s a two thousand year-old reminder that is particularly apt, especially for us here in the United States:
10.33: “And keep in mind that nothing can harm one of nature’s citizens except what harms the city he belongs to. And nothing harms the city except what harms its law. And there is no so-called misfortune that can do that. So long as the law is safe, so is the city – and the citizen.”
“Straight, not straightened.”
I think this one is my favorite entry in the whole book, at least based on my first reading. It appears a couple of times, in 3.5 and 7.12.
I think what Marcus means is that we should stand up straight as an act of will, not in response to some external force or pressure. We have a duty to stand straight. And not just to stand, but to speak straight and act straight. We should do what is right because it is right, not because we are forced.
If I ever create a family coat of arms, I think this might be the motto.
Modern yet ancient
As I said earlier, many of Marcus’ notes are surprisingly modern. This may be partly due to Hays’ translation, but I think it’s also because Marcus was writing for himself in plain language. Yet it’s still very clear that this is an ancient work. Some of the underlying ideas just don’t fit into our modern worldview.
First and foremost is this assumption that the universe is rational and ordered. Few would believe this today. I think many people would accept the stoic idea that much of our lives is beyond our control, but not because of some natural force imposing reason and order, but because of sheer, blind, uncaring randomness. You can blame Schrödinger and Heisenberg I suppose for putting an end to this ancient belief. And while lots of people still equate “natural” with “good” when it comes to food or medicine (often mistakenly, I think), I doubt most of us would extend this benefit of the doubt to diseases or disasters.
Second, although Marcus and the stoics encourage us to work and be active, they don’t specify any purpose other than leading a good life. In the modern world, we are, for better or worse, obsessed with the idea of progress. We work to advance the human condition, to reduce suffering, to have impact, to make a difference, “to make a dent in the universe” as Steve Jobs once said. Listen to any talk or read any article by Bill Gates and count the number of times he uses the word “innovation.” I’m no classical scholar but I think the idea of progress would have been completely foreign to Marcus and to everyone before about 1750.
Lastly there’s the idea throughout Meditations that we each have a destiny, that we’re born to do something that has been predetermined for us. “But wait,” you say, “what about a growth mindset?”
“A whatset?” Marcus asks, incredulously. You cannot change who you are. And you certainly cannot avoid your destiny, at least not if you endeavor to live a life of virtue. It is folly to think that you can make your own destiny. Oh! you incorrigible modern, fuggedaboudit!
All that said, stoicism is still very influential. In fact, stoicism seems to be enjoying – dare I say it – a renaissance these days. It resonates strongly with me too even though I’m just learning about it.
Meditations is a great introduction to stoicism and to so much more. It lets us peek into the life and mind of one of history’s greatest philosopher-kings.
I have a hunch that I’ll discover something new, many things actually, each time I read Meditations.
One thing is certain: after this last year of disaster and strife, there is some peace to be found in accepting, as gracefully as possible, what we cannot control and in focusing our efforts and our energies on the things we can.