Once upon a time I taught World and European history. Both of those curricula involve the study of Classical Rome. Of course well known are names such as Julius Caesar and Augustus, but the second century saw a group of rulers known as The Five Good Emperors, a title bestowed mostly because they were not complete lunatics like Nero or Caligula. The last of these five was the emperor Marcus Aurelius, a man of great interest to me, not because of any accomplishments related to governing, but because of his reputation as a philosopher emperor, due largely to his well-known book Meditations.
It has taken too many years, but finally a few months ago I purchased a copy and now understand why it has remained popular throughout the centuries. Rather than an abstract book of esoteric philosophy, it is full of practical, relatable, and empowering advice on living. Straightforward as the advice is, however, the book is not. It is instead a meandering walk through the mind of Marcus.
Meditations is arranged into 12 groupings called Books. No one knows why there are 12 books, or why one book begins and ends where it does. The general consensus is a book ends where it does because that is where the scroll Marcus was writing on ran out. There is no organization of the contents within the books. The only exception being Book One in which Marcus reflects on those who have made a difference in his life.
The remaining 11 books might initially look like a disheveled, aimless mess. Each morning before he would engage with his responsibilities, Marcus would journal. This is what the Meditations is; the daily morning journal of Marcus Aurelius. Because of this, each entry of each book (they are numbered) was a morning in Marcus’ life. This is why there seems to be no organization to the content of each book. Each day brought new thoughts, new problems. In this way, each entry serves as a stand-alone notion on which to meditate.
To our knowledge, Marcus did not write these reflections for others to read. It was his way to think about and prepare for the challenges he was about to face for the day. The style of Meditations is not written in the standard journal format, as if someone is peeking over your shoulder, but rather Marcus is writing to himself. When the text says “you”, he is addressing himself, but it certainly feels like he is talking to us which is part of its power.
Due to this particular format, there being no narrative, I felt Meditations was not a book I would want to sit down with and read for an extended period of time, but something to take in one page at a time, one thought at a time. I decided to get up 30 minutes earlier than I usually do for work each day and read two to three pages, making notes on the passages that struck me the most while sitting in the dark under a single light at the breakfast table.
The common thread that weaves through the book is the kind of existential concerns we all share: Why are we here? Since we are here, what should we do? How can I deal with pain and misfortune? What is our human nature? How can we cultivate the type of character that will assist us in our daily stresses? And since we will all die, what should our attitude be about that?
Death is a frequent topic, which is no surprise; Meditations was written in the final ten years of Marcus’ life. And aside from his advanced age, he was an emperor of the Roman Empire, a job that I imagine involved a bit of stress. It is of little wonder he was skeptical of those around him. Multiple times he warns himself of the nature of those who play politics. “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly.” (2:1) But he never complains of it. In fact, in 8:9 he writes: “Don’t be overheard complaining about life at court. Not even to yourself.”
He, however, does not abandon those he works with. A few lines further in 2:1, he reflects on what must be done, even with the most manipulative members of the government. “We were born to work together like feet, hands, eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.” Or to further the point, in 6:47, “The only thing that isn’t worthless: to live this life out truthfully and rightly. And be patient with those who don’t.”
Yet despite the stresses of court life, Marcus finds time to reflect on simple things, such as in 3:2 when he notes, “We should remember that even Nature’s inadvertence has its own charm, its own attractiveness. The way loaves of bread split open on top in the oven; the ridges are just by-products of the baking, and yet pleasing, somehow: they rouse the appetite without our knowing why.” It is these kinds of charming observations that ground the book and makes Marcus, the great emperor, approachable.
Throughout his trials, Marcus embodies one of the most important stoic tenants, the dichotomy of control. To quote Epictetus, another Roman stoic philosopher from the 1st/2nd century,
“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”
In modern business coaching language, we should remember to control the controllables. Can you control what people think of you, what your reputation is, how your body functions, or anything else that is external? No. What can you control? Your mind and actions. These are the things worth investing our time in, as Marcus says in 3:4,
“Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people – unless it affects the common good. It will keep you from doing anything useful. You’ll be too preoccupied with what so-and-so is doing, and why, and what they’re saying, and what they’re thinking, and what they’re up to, and all the other things that throw you off and keep you from focusing on your own mind.”
Throughout his writings, Marcus embodies the four stoic virtues, though he never directly mentions them: wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. It was his attentiveness to these traits that molded him into the leader and person he was. Nothing was by accident. Character is cultivated. It is because of these traits that a sense of humility comes across when he reflects on things such as our legacy. “Everything fades so quickly, turns into legend, and soon oblivion covers it.” What we do matters, but we should not be so consumed with our legacy that it misinforms our thoughts and actions. I am sure he would find it amusing that he is still so well known. I can see him maybe rolling his eyes. It is not oblivion for him, at least not yet.
Marcus would not have thought of himself as a philosopher. It is questionable that he was in the sense that the word is used today. What he was is at least this: a thinker actively involved in with his inner-self and the world around him. He was a practicing stoic and an emperor, but he found these titles meaningless, a type of window dressing. If we could ask him what he was, he would likely say, as he does in 2:2, “Whatever this is that I am, it is flesh and a little spirit and an intelligence.”
It is this attitude and approachability I find attractive and why I have still, in my morning time during breakfast, gone back to him repeatedly. It feels almost like I am sitting down with a friend in dialogue about the matters of the day. This is why I call him Marcus. My questions and problems seem remarkably similar to what he experienced 1800 years ago, which I find comforting. To be human is to be human, no matter the century or the job.
Compliment this essay with many others from the How To Live category.
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