Is Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations worth reading? What was the emperor’s intention in writing this text?
Meditations is a series of Marcus Aurelius’s personal writings about the practical applications of Stoicism. Many scholars consider Meditations to be one of the definitive Stoic texts.
Below is a brief overview of the key themes and ideas discussed in Marcus Aurelius’s book Meditations.
What Is Stoicism?
Stoicism is a philosophy that originated in ancient Greece—its central idea is that rational thinking can guide you through any hardship and allow you to endure any pain.
In his book Meditations, Marcus Aurelius covers a wide range of topics, but there are a few key points that it continually returns to and builds upon:
- Remember and obey logos (translated as reason, or rationality).
- See things for what they truly are.
- Recognize that outside forces can’t hurt you.
- Gain perspective, and use it to understand your purpose.
- Remember that you’ll die. That thought should be motivating, not frightening.
Remember and Obey Logos
Logos is the force that guides the universe. It ensures that every occurrence is the right one, as surely as if a scientist had measured every outcome and chosen the best possibility. Therefore, you should always act according to logos. This one belief is the heart of Stoicism.
Nature also follows logos. (In fact, it has to, because it lacks humans’ ability to go against logos.) Therefore, whatever happens in the natural world must be the best possible thing that could happen. Logos ensures that you live on a healthy planet and that living creatures as a whole enjoy health and prosperity.
In spite of that, individual beings often suffer. This is because every organism exists to serve others, not to prevent its own suffering. Lower creatures exist for the benefit of higher ones; for example, plants are eaten by prey animals, which in turn are eaten by predators. Meanwhile, higher creatures (like ourselves) exist to support one another. Always remember that everything in the world is connected, just like those connections between different creatures. All things exist in harmony with one another, and because of one another.
With all of the above facts in mind, accept that everything that happens to you is ordered by logos. Consider each event—even events that seem negative, like illness or injury—as being prescribed by nature. Such events are no different from treatments prescribed by a doctor, so complaining about your own misfortunes hurts you just like refusing to take your medicine would.
See Things as They Are
You should always see things as they are: For example, a feast laid before you is nothing but dead plants and animals. Rich purple robes are simply sheep wool colored with shellfish blood. Making love is just rubbing organs together.
Likewise, as in the previous examples, you should always be able to identify and define whatever you encounter. Your observations should be reasonable and accurate, not based on emotional reactions or illogical superstitions. Furthermore, you should know what parts go into making the thing, what its purpose is, and how you should deal with it (or if you even need to).
Finally, you should know what gave rise to the thing or situation: for example, the will of the gods, random chance, or the actions of another person. In other words, before you respond to any thing or situation, you should make certain that you understand it clearly. You should always proceed with logic, not emotion.
When you observe things, always stop at your first impressions. For example, if a loved one is sick, that’s all you need to consider—there’s no reason to fret that he or she might die from the disease. If you simply accept events for what they are, rather than trying to figure out what they might mean, then you’ll be at peace.
You should also appreciate the things that you have, but only for what they are; don’t overvalue them. In other words, you shouldn’t be so attached to your possessions that you’re afraid to lose them.
Observe, Judge, and Adapt
You have access to Judgment and Adaptability. No matter what situation you might find yourself in, Judgment can see the truth of the matter. Then, Adaptability can figure out how best to make use of the situation. This is the essence of rationality.
Artistic works like music, paintings, dances, and so on can cause you to temporarily lose control of your reason and rationality. However, there’s a simple technique that can prevent you from being swept away by such things: You can study each individual note of a song, or motion of a dance, or the smallest part of a painting you can observe. Then, for each tiny part, ask yourself whether that has any power over you—you’ll find that it doesn’t.
You can also apply that same technique to life as a whole. Looking at your entire lifetime might seem overwhelming, but what power does any single moment have over you?
Recognize That Outside Forces Can’t Hurt You
You can endure any long-term pain, whether physical or emotional—unendurable pain, by definition, quickly ends itself.
If something damages the body, let the body worry about it. As you are a being of reason and logos, all that can truly hurt you is that which damages the mind, or prevents it from working properly. The only thing that can hurt you is that which hurts your character.
Similarly, if you don’t feel hurt, then you haven’t been hurt. Therefore, emotions like anger and grief are more harmful to you than whatever provoked them. If you decide to not be harmed, you won’t be harmed.
For that reason, the thoughts and actions of other people can’t harm you, either. In other words, what others do doesn’t upset you—your perception of what others do upsets you.
That’s not to say that people won’t try to hurt you. They might even try to stop you from pursuing logos, which would indeed be damaging to your mind and character. However, obeying logos is natural and healthy, and nobody can stop you from doing what comes naturally to you.
Similarly, people can’t stop you from tolerating them; from meeting their attacks with patience rather than anger. Growing angry with your fellow people would be as bad as giving up the pursuit of logos at their urging.
Reject Anger and Blame
Because others can’t hurt you, it’s possible to meet any mistake or misbehavior with compassion. You can do this by remembering that others are also human, and that they act out of ignorance. Most importantly, remember that people who make mistakes usually haven’t hurt you: They haven’t damaged your mind nor your character.
When someone tries to hurt you, ask yourself why they’ve done so. What good (or harm) did he or she think it would do? If you find that the other person’s sense of morality is close to your own, you must excuse what he or she did as a mistake. If it’s not close to your morality, then you must conclude that the other person is misguided and deserves compassion rather than anger.
Blame is just as useless as anger. Simply put, there’s nobody to blame for anything—the gods are infallible, and human wrongs are due to accident or ignorance.
When faced with someone else’s mistake, remember that you’ve also made mistakes. Furthermore, you’ve probably avoided making some similar mistakes for bad reasons—such as fear of what others would think—rather than because your reason led you away from those mistakes. In other words, you have the potential to make the same mistakes as the people you’re upset with.
For example, sometimes you get hurt while sparring. You don’t get angry about that, blame your partner, or suddenly consider your partner a violent and untrustworthy person. You’re simply more cautious when sparring with that person in the future. Bring that same mindset to other areas of your life: Forgive mistakes, and just be more cautious after one happens.
See Humanity as a Whole
When discussing people, consider them as if you were looking down from high above the world. Humankind exists as a harmonious collection of opposites: births and deaths, weddings and divorces, celebrations and mourning periods. When you accept the whole of humanity, with all of its diversity and apparent contradictions, you’ll find that you’re also much more tolerant of each individual member of humanity.
Given that humanity is such a collection of opposites, the world needs all different types of people. Therefore, when you run into somebody who’s selfish, cruel, or dishonest, remind yourself that such people must exist, and that person just happens to be one of them.
Know That Perspective Brings Purpose
Always keep a sense of perspective. A tiny grape seed exists in infinite space. A single second exists as a part of eternity. Your body and your lifetime are no different from those things. You exist as a speck in infinity, as a moment in eternity, and—most importantly—as an individual in a community.
Because you exist as part of a much larger whole, whatever selfish desires you have are trivial. Therefore, instead of chasing your petty desires, you should accept whatever you’re given with integrity and humility and work tirelessly for the common good. Your purpose in life is to do good for others.
You should help others without any thought of reward. Be like vines producing grapes, or bees storing honey: doing good almost unconsciously, simply because it’s what you do.
If you ever feel reluctant to help others, remember that everything is connected through logos. Therefore, in helping others you also help yourself. How could you ever object to doing something that helps you?
Remember That Purpose Allows You to Live Well
To live in a consistent way, you must have a consistent goal. However, since individual people are so changeable, the only way to have a consistent goal is to work for the good of all people. By devoting your energy toward such a goal, you can be sure that you’re always consistent in your thoughts and actions. In other words: You should never take action without a purpose, and that purpose should never be anything except the common good.
There are two steps to living a peaceful and purposeful life:
- Don’t worry. Remember, nature and logos control everything.
- Stay focused on your tasks—and remember that your job is to be a good person, to do good things for others.
Remember Death, but Don’t Fear It
You could die at any moment. That thought should guide your actions every day. Consider how long you’ve been putting off the things you mean to do and realize that your time to do those things is quickly running out.
Approach every task as if it’s the last thing you’ll ever do and the final thing you’ll be remembered for. Spend every minute focused on what’s in front of you, doing your work with sincerity and care.
However, this doesn’t mean that you should fear death. Death is a natural and necessary process and there’s no reason for a rational person to be afraid of it. You can be sure of this because the gods have given you the intelligence, skills, and tools that you need to avoid harm; therefore, if death were harmful, they would have given you a way to avoid it.
Furthermore, the gods and nature don’t act randomly, letting good and bad things happen to good and bad people alike. However, everyone experiences life and death. Therefore, you must conclude that these things are neither good nor bad. They simply exist.
Don’t Wish for a Long Life
Additionally, there’s no intrinsic benefit to living a longer life. All that a person ever has is the present moment, and that moment is all that’s lost upon death. If I were to live 50 years and you were to live 5,000 years, our lives would amount to the same thing: Collections of moments that fade to nothing once they’re past.
Therefore, worrying about how long your body will endure is a waste of time and energy. Sooner or later each of us will die, and you should face this with quiet dignity, as you would face anything else in life. The question of when it happens is irrelevant.
Even the greatest human life is insignificant; peasants and emperors both blow away like smoke on the wind. Knowing that you’re so unimportant, why should you worry about your life or your death? To live your short life righteously, in accordance with nature and logos, is enough.
Ease Your Passing
To take a different approach to facing death, you could ask yourself what it is about life that you’re so desperate to cling to. Breathing? Feeling? Speaking? You don’t need those things, and the fear of losing them is an obstacle to following logos.
It might also make death easier to face if you recognize that, no matter how good and righteous you’ve been in life, at least a few people will be happy to see you go. When you recognize that you’ll be making others’ lives easier by dying, you’ll be less reluctant to do so.
If the fear of death creeps in, you can look at whatever you’re doing at the moment and ask: Am I afraid because I won’t be able to do this thing anymore? By repeatedly examining what you think you’re afraid of, you’ll realize that there’s nothing to fear.
Take a Bow
As a closing thought, theater has a lot to teach about how to live and how to die:
- Tragic plays exist to remind you of what can and will eventually happen to you. If you enjoy watching tragic events in the theatre, they shouldn’t upset you when they happen in real life.
- After Tragedy came Old Comedy, which taught equally valuable lessons in a different way—by speaking plainly, with a simple honesty that cuts through pretenses and false beliefs.
- Following Old Comedy came Middle and New Comedy. These forms only strive for technique; they have no messages behind them. The shows might be enjoyable, but what’s the point of them? No one should seek to live like that—pleasantly but without purpose.
Finally, like the curtain coming down at the end of a play, death will eventually come for each of us. Actors don’t get to choose how long a play is; the playwright made that decision long before they ever stepped on stage.
Therefore, like an actor bows and leaves the stage at her appointed time, leave this world with humility and grace—the same grace that you received all throughout your life.