Reflections on Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations

For a Roman emperor and the most powerful man in the world, Marcus Aurelius lived a notably uncomfortable life. Choosing a life of stoicism rather than comfort, Aurelius shirked the luxuries that his high status provided him. He slept in a simple cot with an animal skin rather than a comfortable bed. He worked incessantly, never foregoing his imperial duties even while on holiday. Even during his later years, Aurelius never relaxed his commitment to duty. During the latter two decades of his 58 year life, Aurelius spent the majority of his time cold and hungry, huddled with his men at a military encampment in the lands surrounding the Danube River.  Here the hardened philosopher-king and his legions drove back barbarian incursions from Roman lands, maintaining imperial borders at a high cost to himself and his men. 

Though the dedication he showed toward his royal duties was unmatched, perhaps the greatest contribution the emperor ever gave to the world was his private diary. Never intended for the public, Aurelius’ wrote down personal insights and observations while on campaign against barbarian tribes in eastern Europe – fighting by day and philosophizing by night. These personal insights are referred to as his Meditations and have been passed down for nearly two millennia, provoking contemplation in audiences of all backgrounds. Meditations is often considered the epitome of stoic philosophy although Aurelius draws on multiple schools of philosophical thought in addition to stoicism. Nevertheless the work is a unique opportunity to peer into the mind of a man remarkably positioned as the leader of the greatest empire in history, a man who controlled the fates of 75 million people, a quarter of the world’s population at that time. 

Meditations offers the modern reader a wealth of practical wisdom from someone who reached the pinnacle of success. In this work we learn the importance of thanksgiving, the pitfalls of extraneous praise, and the primacy of mindset over circumstance.

On Thanksgiving

The first lesson that Aurelius reflects upon in his diary is the importance of thanksgiving. The emperor acknowledges that much of the wisdom he received throughout his life was imparted to him by others. In the first book of his diary (Meditations is subdivided into twelve books), Aurelius thanks various figures in his life that have passed on knowledge or habits that have been beneficial to him. Aurelius writes:

“From my grandfather Verus, I learned about nobility of character and steady temper.”

“From his reputation and my own memory of my father, modesty and strength.”

1.1, 1.2

The emperor goes on to thank his mother, his tutors, various philosophers he’s studied, and other family members who have been exemplary to him. Every entry in the first book acknowledges a different person showing Aurelius’ appreciation to those that came before him and his humility in understanding that his life and success have been guided, at least in part, by those around him. Finally, in the last entry of Book One, Aurelius thanks the gods for placing these people in his life. Here Aurelius recognizes a hierarchy of influence in the events and people that have shaped his life. 

Today we may not recognize the same gods that Aurelius did, but his sentiment toward thanksgiving is wise: we should give thanks for the people, circumstances, and events in our lives that have been edifying, and ultimately we should recognize that those things have all been arranged by a higher logos.

On Praise

As leader of the Roman Empire, it’s fair to say that Marcus Aurelius received a great deal of praise: well-earned and also the usual lip service a man of high status receives from career-climbing subordinates. He was careful to not let adulation inflate his ego however, and cautioned against heeding flattery and criticism from others. Aurelius writes about how it is foolish to desire praise from most people:

“Do you desire to be praised by a man who curses himself three times an hour? Do you desire to gain the approval of people who do not even approve of themselves?”

8.53

Aurelius was extremely action oriented, an intended consequence of his stoic training. The emperor stressed the importance of actions in and of themselves regardless of potential rewards or backlash. Aurelius writes:

“When you have done a good act and another has fared well by it, why seek a third reward besides these, as fools do, be it the reputation for having done a good act or getting something in return?”

7.73

Quite eloquently the emperor sums up his thoughts on praise:

“Everything which results in something beautiful is itself beautiful and is complete in itself, with praise holding no essential role. Therefore, whatever is praised becomes neither better nor worse because it is or is not praised. I assert this also of things which are commonly called beautiful, such as material things and the various arts and crafts. Does that which is beautiful really need anything in addition? No – no more than Law does; no more than Truth; no more than kindness, than modesty. Which of these is beautiful or ugly on account of being either praised or slandered? Does an emerald become ugly if it is not admired? What about gold, ivory, royal purple dye, the lyre, the sword, or a flower?”

4.20
Bust of Marcus Aurelius

Practical Philosophy

As mentioned above, Marcus Aurelius prioritized actions over feelings or beliefs. As a result, Aurelius was a workaholic, finding it difficult to relax from his administrative responsibilities. Even while on holiday, the emperor fretted constantly. After being urged to rest by his tutor Fronto, Aurelius wrote back in a letter, “I have duties hanging over me that can hardly be begged off.” Aurelius reveals his philosophy on rest in Meditations:

“Take pleasure and rest in one thing only: making your way from one communal duty to another, always remembering god.”

6.7

Although today the term “philosopher” draws to mind one who sits in a leather chair and contemplates deeply impractical conundrums with a cigar and whiskey, in Aurelius’ day this was not so. A philosopher was someone who adhered to a particular philosophical school’s daily practices. Philosophy was a way of life, not merely a field of study. The end goal of philosophy was action. Philosophy was practical. Aurelius describes this succinctly in the following entry:

“Stop philosophizing about what a good man is and be one.”

10.16

Aurelius strove to live out his convictions rather than stew over them as evidenced by his adventurous life. Aurelius teaches us here that to live a philosophical life does not mean that it will be a dull endeavor. The philosopher’s life is one of action.

Mindset

Part of taking the correct action is first having the correct mindset over a given circumstance. One’s attitude can help determine how to approach a situation and help to alleviate suffering along the way. Aurelius notes how much of what happens to us is out of our control. To brood over unfortunate circumstances is counterproductive and leads to bitterness. The emperor records that, though we cannot control the majority of what is external to us, we can control our internal state:

“When jarred unavoidably by circumstances, revert at once to yourself, and don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better grasp of the harmony if you keep on going back to it.”

6.11 

A return to this inner “rhythm” was key to the stoic school of philosophy, as much of the practice revolved around maintaining an inner peace despite the chaos of the world. One way to achieve this was to adjust one’s expectations. Aurelius argues that one should not beg the universe for certain outcomes, but rather build an inner fortitude that can handle the rough waters of life. Aurelius discusses this when describing how one should pray:  

“Begin to pray in the following way and you will see. Someone else may pray: “How may I possess that woman?” But you should pray: “How may I not lust after that woman?” Someone else prays: “How can I be rid of him?” But you: “How can I not wish to be rid of him?” Another: “How may I not lose my little child?” But you: “How may I not dread the loss of my child?” Turn your prayers around entirely, and see what happens.”

9.40 

Conclusion

Meditations reveals the psyche of a man who had it all yet managed to stay grounded in reality. The writings are surprisingly down to earth; perhaps they could serve as a guide-book for those in power on how to rule justly and maintain a connection to the people. The sage advice applies much more broadly than to rulers, however. Each person that picks up Meditations can learn something from it and put into practice what they’ve learned, striving to become a philosopher in the way the emperor would have understood it. To these would-be philosophers Aurelius offers a final word of encouragement:

“What could be clearer? No other life is more appropriate for the practice of philosophy than that life which you now happen to be living.”  

11.7

2 thoughts on “Reflections on Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations

  1. Reblogged this on Zero Lift-Off and commented:
    ARE YOU A FOLLOWER OR A LEADER? In either case where will you end up at journey’s end? I say there is only one path to be on!

    Marcus Aurelius is a fine example to point out to the people of today as to promoting the facing of challenges with an even temperament!

    Marcus had some big setbacks or struggles which I can absolutely relate to, but, his doing such positive with them like promoting strong reminders that were designed to make him humble, patient, empathetic, generous, and strong in the face of whatever he was dealing with, which is what I’ve been doing or trying, but need to do even more and better!

    I had a response to one of my postings that straightaway was straying from the topic at hand and appeared to be more of a statement to ridicule belief in God Almighty which today is rampant in the highly secular pagan atmosphere and people mostly striving for attention as they worship self or in the least are seeking adulation from others especially on social media which tends to be mostly a lot of dribble and just diversion from reality by joining the club of clicking and getting more likes or follows, a sort of baiting humans to do a Pavlov’s Dogs Tricks Behavior, while the Tech Titans gain enormous wealth and data mine all of our private information, which to me is idiotic to be willingly a part of it; thus I’ve never wanted to have Facebook; and now with so much truth surfacing over the last few years of what these Tech Giants are really up to its reassuring to know I wasn’t falling for the hype and propaganda from the get goes!

    But, here is the response I made to this comment on my blog essay that I want to share here because I can only imagine what Marcus would say about how ridiculous people have become and what might even be considered hallow men with little integrity, character or actual guts; as they live sitting cloistered in their pretend cyber world!

    I’m not discussing thermodynamics and or particle physics as those debates in the world at large continue, as to whether the basic laws that govern the time space continuum are set or have absolute boundaries as Einstein was referring when he stated that “God doesn’t play dice,” while there are those that still concur that beyond the fourth dimension which they believe quantum mechanics appears to indicate there are fluctuations or vibrations that function outside of all established know physics leading one to consider alternate universes and the like, or multiple outcomes are randomly possible for the same static event or particle’s path when considered in the expanded time space continuum based on that conjecture; but some would or try to say that any such intriguing possibility that seems to be presenting such a potentiality; this is to me for all intent and purposes the God particle as a reference here far exceeding our conceptualization capacity, or that aspect that all else is based on which is God, which nobody is infinitesimally capable of understanding let alone competing with such enormous and vast power and understanding that which knows anything and everything!

    Take a look at what we really are to equate what I say; otherwise we are heading down the rabbit hole of atheism and non-belief in any highest intellect and presence in the universe and that in itself is ridiculous on its face, because it concludes that all is just random and there is no order or design intelligence to anything while reaching such a conclusion based on Nothing; making it all gibberish and a total fool’s errand; so in such a mindset anything goes and morals or integrity should be non-existent as well, so there is no right or wrong and if you hail from a that arena I can tell you categorically you are totally a wet blanket and dead wrong! In such a world murder and any malicious act is fine and all that matters is who gets the advantage over someone else say like the way the CCP in China function where they as of 2014 had exterminated 1.2 million Tibetans, and so my point is morality counts above most things on earth and there is a reason it does, and was meant to be such!! It is not meant to be the opposite of rule by the toughest and wickedest or only the most vicious bloodthirsty can prevail with brute force and cunning! I have even experienced supernatural events that proved to me 100% that there is absolutely way more than meets our puny minute vision and comprehension! Oh and yes, there is diabolical evil it exists, and is a force that one way or another we will all grapple with to some degree in our own short lifetimes, or in the least when each of us dies and our immortal souls are then presented with the absolute truth; then each soul will see the basic truth and finds whether it has been in alignment with the inner light of God or instead the opposing force of darkness and evil. Which I have to tell you or anyone interested you don’t want to be on that side of the ultimate judgment equation, because the agony of what awaits such souls is far too difficult to fully comprehend in this present state of being; but, it is real and eternally final for such souls!

    I would only tell you no matter where you stand in all of this you owe it to yourself not to cut yourself off from the life giving source, that which is all encompassing and made all things. Your point is based on the finite particle physics world, and what I’m talking about is far beyond mere matter and energy extrapolations! You’ve seriously put yourself at a great disadvantage speaking about the spiritual in this limited finite closed system of terms! For now I can assure you there is far more to existence than meets the eye or what any equations arrive at as conclusions, all basically missing the bigger part of the picture, and therefore; not knowing enough to say there is no evil. This all takes many years of delving into multiple disciplines to break it down deductively; and or experiencing events beyond the ordinary to have any valid concise conclusion of science and beyond it; unless of course you’re happy with your limiting process, then you get what you pay for or pay for what you did when your time comes to face the music! The choice of course is and must be your own, but, I have made my mind up long ago and nothing in this world or anywhere else can alter my perception or understanding in a negative way! I’m all set!

    I want you provide a bit more for you to consider what I’m saying about evil, and how real it is or how it manifests in human beings intellectually and physically; by reading these two previous essays and then I hope you will begin to understand my accurate perceptions that provide enough of a solid footing to say I have the best possible answer to our human dilemma or condition!

    https://lawrencemorra.com/2019/07/28/two-men-one-a-servant-of-god-the-other-a-minion-of-satan/

    https://lawrencemorra.com/2020/09/05/the-marxist-propaganda-in-a-world-going-bonkers/

    I must warn you I only offer this outpouring to you as a conscientious solid faithful believer in God Almighty, and I absolutely do not believe in arguing with set non-believers who have drawn what they believe is their proper conclusion based on nothing but rebelliousness, and I have to say darkness! I do this for your benefit not mine; I am all set, thank you!

    In any event I hope this long comment has some positive effect for anyone who is reading this fine posting and considering or reassessing what they do with their spare time and what forthright personal investment they are making in this life that would be considered honorable and noble before a man like Marcus Aurelius if he were here; and more importantly before God!
    God bless you.
    Brother in Christ Jesus,
    Lawrence Morra III

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: