Ancient Wisdom Worth Reading.
Everyone needs a little pithy self-help advice.
The Greatest Book’s Ranking: #27/100
I’ve dabbled in Stoicism for the past few years. Sitting around feeling whipped by the waves of fate for most of my life, I welcomed this practical philosophy with open arms. Instead of growing dour due to feeling insignificant on a cosmic scale, I started putting more responsibility on my plate. Stoicism is a fine way to start regaining a sense of control.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is one of the cornerstone texts of Stoicism. Not only that, this book is fascinating just on a compositional basis: it’s the private diary of a Roman Emperor. Never meant to be published, it’s a one of a kind inlet to the personal thoughts from Ancient history. What a rare type of book.
Within it, you’ll find the universal concerns every human has expressed about their life. Aurelius struggles with meaning, justice, morals, and death. His writing style is concise and clear making his gentle reminders to lead a better life easy to apply to our own lives.
Marcus Aurelius was emperor of Rome from 161-180 AD. He wrote his self-reflections down over the course of his life where they were eventually turned into manuscripts. It’s hard to track down the timeline after his death, but around 10th century, it begins to be mentioned and referenced. The two remaining sources come out of the wood work around the 1600s and is the basis for our current version.
There are a few main threads of stoicism that are intertwined in Meditations.
The Only Thing You Control: Your Mind.
It’s not so much about the things that happen to us but rather how we think about it:
The Mind is that which is roused and directed by itself. It makes of itself what it chooses. It makes what it chooses of its own experience.
So to live a good life, it requires us to not lament our predicament. Instead, we need to change how we think about it:
The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts. Color it with a run of thoughts like these: Anywhere you can lead your life, you can lead a good one.
In line with CBT being about reframing our negative thoughts in a more positive way, Aurelius believes this is a useful mind hack:
And for a human being to feel stress is normal – if he’s living a normal human life. And if it’s normal, how can it be bad?
This is the only tool within your control and your content is dependent on how well you manage it:
Your ability to control your thoughts – treat it with respect. It’s all that protects your mind from false perceptions – false to your nature, and that of all rational beings.
This does quite a few things for me. One, it takes the focus away from things we can’t control (what others think of us, what might happen tomorrow) and puts it squarely within something that is within reach (how our mind, in the present moment, is humming along). By reducing the focus of our world to a solitary goal, we can block out the noise.
Life is Impermanent.
A big sticking point to Aurelius is the fact that he is an Emperor, but he knows that it won’t last:
Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died and the same thing happened to both. They were absorbed alike into the life force of the world, or dissolved alike into atoms.
Death is the great equalizer. It happens to all. It cannot be avoided. Regardless of your class or situation, you will come to your own end. With this knowledge at the forefront, it reinforces the idea that you shouldn’t put your stock in things that won’t last:
We find ourselves in a river. Which of the things around us should we value when none of them can offer a firm foothold?
Since all these things are forever changing, why would we let them effect how we feel?
So it would take an idiot to feel self-importance or distress. Or any indignation, either. As if the things that irritated us lasted.
Is it your reputation that’s bothering you? But look at how soon we’re all forgotten.
This further reinforces the idea that we need to shrink our world to the perception of mind. When we start to wonder and focus on impermanent things, we are putting stock in things not only outside of our control but things that won’t last. A much better tactic is shrinking our focus to what is within our control (our mind’s perceptions) and working from there. But, how do we know we are doing that the right way given our mind’s proclivity to mislead?
Objectivity and Rationality is the Way.
It is important to make sure that your thoughts come from a vantage point that allows it to calculate without emotion:
Perceptions like that — latching onto things and piercing through them, so we can see what they really are. That’s what we need to do all the time — all through our lives when things lay claim to our trust- lay them bare and see how pointless they are, to strip away the legend that encrusts them.
This piece is important. You can’t analyze the world incorrectly:
Nothing is so conducive to spiritual growth as this capacity for logical and accurate analysis of everything that happens to us.
Of course, this is where the rubber meets the road.
Aurelius approached this problem with several exercises. His journal opens up with thanks to everyone who affected him because through expressing gratitude, he was able to gain a more objective perch to analyze his thoughts. His morning routine consists of reminding himself of his obligation as a stoic (objective and logical perception) and not to get swept up in the excitement of judgement.
Heck, the very act of writing a journal was his attempts of making sure he lived his life to the fullest.
Remember how long you’ve been putting this off, how many extensions the gods gave you, and you didn’t use them.
There is never a better time than now to begin being better.
Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one – Marcus Aurelius.
- Reflections of an African Youth: “One thing the Meditations stress throughout is that man is responsible for his thoughts and actions and must therefore cultivate them to make them good”
- BissBooks: “It reads like a journal, actually a little like my own journal if you strip out some of the self-pity and the plotting and organising and add a massive dose of thoughtful philosophy.”
- The Man Who Would Be Knight: “I can think of very few books better suited to being read during a particularly contentious, vulgar and disheartening election season than the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.”