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Reading Notes: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

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Meditations…is a series of personal writings by Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD, recording his private notes to himself and ideas on Stoic philosophy. Marcus Aurelius wrote the 12 books of the Meditations…as a source for his own guidance and self-improvement. (Wikipedia)

Part of my 2016 reading list.

Definitely a worthwhile read. I read the (recent) Hays translation as I heard it continually recommended. These are private notes on life from a great man, and one of the great charms of this book is that it’s not dressed up in hopes of impressing anyone—it’s practical and direct. He probably never expected anyone else to read it.

When deciding whether or not to pick this book up, keep in mind what Hays notes in the introduction:

Ancient philosophy…was not merely a subject to write or argue about, but one that was expected to provide a “design for living”—a set of rules to live one’s life by. This was a need not met by ancient religion, which privileged ritual over doctrine and provided little in the way of moral or ethical guidelines. Nor did anyone expect it to. That was what philosophy was for. (Kindle location 196).

Because these notes are solely for Marcus they contain exactly what he needed to hear; this has two notable results: (1) he tends to repeat several themes (acceptance of circumstance, acceptance of death, rejection of pride / concern for the judgment of others, etc.), to remind or convince himself—great if these are lessons you also need to learn, a touch repetitive if not—and (2) he likely didn’t write what he had already internalized well, making this not a complete treatise, and occasionally lacking in supporting arguments. Regardless, it’s highly approachable, and—as others have noted—feels like it was written this decade, not 1800+ years ago.

While a bit disorganized (I’m not even sure if we know the original order of the chapters), I’m a fan of the basic format, which is aphorism based. I have a personal suspicion that the most effective format for a book—in terms of efficiency of transferring knowledge + retention—would be a collection of aphorisms combined with expository essays expanding on each aphorism (another recently-read moralistic writing which impressed me with its simple format and directness was the Taoist classic Student’s Rules (guī) by xiù).

For me, the most powerful quote in Meditations is the one Ryan Holiday extracted and made an entire book from:

Our actions may be impeded by [obstacles], but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting.

The impediment to action advances action.

What stands in the way becomes the way. (1394)

It’s an easy quote to pass over, but taken to its conclusion, it presents an exceedingly powerful perspective on life’s challenges. (Holiday’s book is the primary factor that lead me to read Meditations in the first place.)

I was also repeatedly surprised by how much Marcus’s Stoicism reminded me of Buddhism (not an original thought—e.g. in Antifragile Taleb states that “A Stoic is a Buddhist with attitude, one who says ‘fuck you’ to fate.”). The interconnectedness of all things, denouncing worldly pursuits, desire as the source of dissatisfaction, accepting what is (right view), death as a natural process, embracing bad as well as good, reminding oneself of the path (right intention), speaking truthfully and without ostentation (right speech), forgiveness, immediacy—all make an appearance.

Some favorite quotes, which should give a good taste of Marcus’s approach to life:

See and accept all things as they are:

[Do not] stain or disturb the spirit within […] with a mess of false beliefs. (1112)

Surrounded as we are by all of this, we need to practice acceptance. Without disdain. But remembering that our own worth is measured by what we devote our energy to. (1639)

Remember: you shouldn’t be surprised that a fig tree produces figs, nor the world produces what it produces. A good doctor isn’t surprised when his patients have fevers, or a helmsman when the wind blows against him. (1844)

The stench of decay. Rotting meat in a bag. Look at it clearly, if you can. (1907)

The cucumber is bitter? Then throw it out. There are brambles in the path? Then go around them. That’s all you need to know. Nothing more. Don’t demand to know “why such things exist.” Anyone who understands the world will laugh at you, just as a carpenter would if you seemed shocked at finding sawdust in his workshop, or a shoemaker at scraps of leather left over from work. (1943)

Either the gods have power or they don’t. If they don’t, why pray? If they do, then why not pray for something else instead of for things to happen or not happen? Pray not to feel fear. Or desire, or grief. If the gods can do anything, they can surely do that for us. But those are things the gods left up to me. Then isn’t it better to do what’s up to you—like a free man—than to be passively controlled by what isn’t, like a slave or a beggar? (2110)

A healthy pair of eyes should see everything that can be seen and not say, “No! Too bright!” (which is a symptom of ophthalmia). A healthy sense of hearing or smell should be prepared for any sound or scent; a healthy stomach should have the same reaction to all foods, as a mill to what it grinds. So too a healthy mind should be prepared for anything. The one that keeps saying, “Are my children alright?” or “Everyone must approve of me” is like eyes that can only stand pale colors, or teeth that can handle only mush. (2293)

Accept death:

Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly. (1753)

Suppose that a god announced that you were going to die tomorrow “or the day after.” Unless you were a complete coward you wouldn’t kick up a fuss about which day it was—what difference could it make? Now recognize that the difference between years from now and tomorrow is just as small. (1257)

The earth will cover us all, and then be transformed in turn, and that too will change, ad infinitum. And that as well, ad infinitum. Think about them: the waves of change and alteration, endlessly breaking. And see our brief mortality for what it is. (2071)

Accept and understand others, even when they err or seek to harm us:

To feel affection for people even when they make mistakes is uniquely human. You can do it, if you simply recognize: that they’re human too, that they act out of ignorance, against their will, and that you’ll both be dead before long. And, above all, that they haven’t really hurt you. They haven’t diminished your ability to choose. (1679)

When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come to you. If you understand that, you’ll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them. Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion. Is that so hard? (1688)

A lot of things are means to some other end. You have to know an awful lot before you can judge other people’s actions with real understanding. (2402)

Events are only what our mind makes of them:

The mind in itself has no needs, except for those it creates itself. Is undisturbed, except for its own disturbances. Knows no obstructions, except those from within. (1668)

Everything that happens is either endurable or not. If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining. If it’s unendurable…then stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well. Just remember: you can endure anything your mind can make endurable, by treating it as in your interest to do so. In your interest, or in your nature. (2154)

Remain steady:

How much more damage anger and grief do than the things that cause them. (2409)

When you start to lose your temper, remember: There’s nothing manly about rage. It’s courtesy and kindness that define a human being—and a man. That’s who possesses strength and nerves and guts, not the angry whiners. (2419)

To be angry at something means you’ve forgotten: That everything that happens is natural. That the responsibility is theirs, not yours. (2553)

[Remember] that things have no hold on the soul. They stand there unmoving, outside it. Disturbance comes only from within—from our own perceptions. (1139)

Act from principle, ignoring critics and accolades:

Socrates used to call popular beliefs “the monsters under the bed”—only useful for frightening children with. (2442)

If an action or utterance is appropriate, then it’s appropriate for you. Don’t be put off by other people’s comments or criticism. If it’s right to say or do, then it’s the right thing for you to do or say. The others obey their own lead, follow their own impulses. Don’t be distracted. Keep walking. Follow your own nature, and follow Nature—along the road they share. (1298)

It’s quite possible to be a good man without anyone realizing it. Remember that. (1783)

You’ve given aid and they’ve received it. And yet, like an idiot you keep holding out for more: to be credited with a Good Deed, to be repaid in kind. Why? (1797)

It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own. (2489)

The best revenge is not to be like that. (1463)

The way people behave. They refuse to admire their contemporaries, the people whose lives the share. No, but to be admired by Posterity—people they’ve never met and never will—that’s what they set their hearts on. You might as well be upset at not being a hero to your great-grandfather. (1510)

Do what nature demands. Get a move on—if you have it in you—and don’t worry whether anyone will give you credit for it. And don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic; be satisfied with even the smallest progress, and treat the outcome of it all as unimportant. (2076)

You do have it in you:

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. (1513)

When you need encouragement, think of the qualities the people around you have: this one’s energy, that one’s modesty, another’s generosity, and so on. Nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visibly embodied in the people around us, when we’re practically showered with them. It’s good to keep this in mind. (1609)

You have to assemble your life yourself—action by action. And be satisfied if each one achieves its goal, as far as it can. No one can keep that from happening. But there are external obstacles. … Not to behaving with justice, self-control, and good sense. Well, but perhaps to some more concrete action. But if you accept the obstacle and work with what you’re given, an alternative will present itself—another piece of what you’re trying to assemble. Action by action. (1885)

And how should we act? In keeping with the logos, of course:

Everything derives from it—that universal mind—either as effect or consequence. The lion’s jaws, the poisonous substances, and every harmful thing—from thorns to mud…are by-products of the good and the beautiful. So don’t look at them as alien to what you revere, but focus on the source that all things spring from. (1563)

Keep reminding yourself of the way things are connected, of their relatedness. All things are implicated in one another and in sympathy with each other. This event is the consequence of some other one. Things push and pull on each other, and breathe together, and are one. (1567)

People exist for one another. You can instruct or endure them. (1976)

You’ve wandered all over and finally realized that you never found what you were after: how to live. Not in syllogisms, not in money, not in fame, or self-indulgence. Nowhere.

—Then where is it to be found?

In doing what human nature requires.

—How?

Though first principles. Which should govern your intentions and your actions.

—What principles?

Those to do with good and evil. That nothing is good except what leads to fairness, and self-control, and courage, and free will. And nothing bad except what does the opposite. (1808)

OK, but how?

No random actions, not based on underlying principles. (1120)

You can lead an untroubled life provided you can grow, can think and act systematically. Two characteristics shared by gods and men (and every rational creature): i. Not to let others hold you back. ii. To locate goodness in thinking and doing the right thing, and to limit your desires to that. (1441)

…superhuman truthfulness (every word, every utterance)… (1099)

No carelessness in your actions. No confusion in your words. No imprecision in your thoughts. No retreating into your own soul, or trying to escape it. No overactivity. They kill you, cut you with knives, shower you with curses. And that somehow cuts your mind off from clearness, and sanity, and self-control, and justice? A man standing by a spring of clear, sweet water and cursing it. While the fresh water keeps on bubbling up. He can shovel mud into it, or dung, and the stream will carry it away, wash itself clean, remain unstained. To have that. Not a cistern but a perpetual spring. How? By working to win your freedom. Hour by hour. Through patience, honesty, humility. (1950)

Don’t let anything deter you: other people’s misbehavior, your own misperceptions, What People Will Say, or the feelings of the body that covers you (let the affected part take care of those). 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. (2472)

Miscellaneous:

Anywhere you can lead your life, you can lead a good one. (1380)

Give yourself a gift: the present moment. (1923)

Disgraceful: for the soul to give up when the body is still going strong. (1536)

Remember that to change your mind and to accept correction are free acts too. The action is yours, based on your own free will, your own decision—and your own mind. (1846)

If you read Meditations and want to continue down this path, some logical next steps would be Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic (on my reading list for the year), Epictetus’s Discourses, and Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way.

I’ll leave you with a favorite quote:

Objective judgment, now, at this very moment. Unselfish action, now, at this very moment. Willing acceptance—now, at this very moment—of all external events. That’s all you need. (2014)

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