Marcus Aurelius - Meditations
So I got it in my head that I want to read. And even write about what I read. All well and good. But where do I begin? Wouldn’t it be kind of embarrassing to start off with something that turns out to be not worth the time?
The obvious thing is to ask for recommendations – preferably from people who’ve been reading a lot for a long time. And as a purebred introvert, by “asking”, I naturally mean searching on the internet.
It didn’t take long, as even a few rounds of queries already tended to return the same clump of generally recognized must-reads we can’t go wrong with. As for selecting just one (for now), the last nail in the coffin was Ryan Holiday’s endorsement. So the first book we preprocess is gonna be… Drumroll please…
A roman emperor’s 2000 year old journal. Wait, what?! Seriously?
Yes, seriously. And let me tell you, I’m anything but disappointend. What we get here is unrestricted access to the private thoughts of a philosopher emperor as he tries to keep himself on the “right path” through Stoic principles. Stoic principles that are just as important today as they were back then, if not more.
The first thing to hit me about it was how such an old piece of writing can be so timely. Full of so immediately and generally applicable advice and insight.
A second impression is the metric shitton of repetition. But it’s not at all annoying, as it’s not the understanding part that’s hard here, but the keeping it fresh and putting it into practice parts – and those can really use the redundancy.
My third, and probably most important, impression came after I’d finished my initial read, when I realized that it was already affecting my everyday behavior. Demotivated in the middle of a project? There’s a crowd in the shop? A certified idiot cuts in front of me on the road? The quotes came unbidden, and thanks to their reminders, I handled the situations differently. Better.
Granted, there are a few metaphysical (as in, God-related) bits that can be a bit eyebrow-raising for the atheistic reader. But if we can disregard those, the rest is a literal gold mine. Okay, okay – not literal; a figurative gold mine. Point is: if you don’t improve after reading it, then you’ve either already read it before, or haven’t been paying attention.
I thought the best quotes I’ve collected would become more easily digestible by some thematic grouping, so here are the labels that emerged naturally:
Each of these could have been an individual post, but this is just how hard I roll. But you don’t have to worry too much about original thoughts – the overwhelming majority of this summary is just the quotes themselves (thereby reducing the chance that I ruin the lofty vibe with something stupid). What I add is just the categorization, plus some minor commentary and contemporarization.
With this in mind, let’s get into some ancient wisdom, shall we?
Not to be sidetracked by my interest in rhetoric.
Besides this, he also mentions a few times how grateful he is for not being more talented in rhetoric, as it would have made it even harder for him to turn his back on the subject. Reminds me of a relevant Richler quote: “A boy can be two, three, four potential people, but a man is only one. He murders the others”. Not “neglects” or “lets wither”, might I add – kills it. If you know what’s important, then go and do that.
To read attentively – not to be satisfied with ‘just getting the gist of it.’
To investigate and analyze, with understanding and logic, the principles we ought to live by. Not just following the herd, not being a victim of circumstances, taking an active interest in our own improvement.
Hmm… Wonder where the inspiration for this blog might have come from?
People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward are wasting their time – even when hard at work.
This, sadly, covers way more people than it should. And if we generalize from “no purpose” to “wrong purpose” – or, perish the thought, to “socially default and not consciously selected purpose” – then the situation gets even sadder.
No random actions.
Learn to ask of all actions, “Why are they doing that?” Starting with your own.
A very simple, yet effective technique to avoid the common “Where did this day go?” effect. Awareness and self-inspection, so we don’t just swim with the tide.
Two more, without comment:
You can lead an untroubled life provided you can grow, can think and act systematically.
Blot out your imagination. Turn your desire to stone. Quench your appetites. Keep your mind centered on itself.
This section is mostly just a list of personality traits that he deemed worthy of emulation – and with good reason.
Her inability not only to do wrong but even to conceive of doing it.
Powerful image for someone “pure” and “innocent” (as he refers to his mother here).
Gravity without airs.
This is the point where I admit that I can’t relate as much as I would want to. As I read this, I got uncomfortably reminded of quite a few instances where I felt the need to bring up my accomplishments, awards, salary, credentials, etc. Which, in retrospect, leaves a very disgustingly repulsive “Do you know who I am?!” aftertaste. I write this here to publicly atone, in the hopes that the embarrassment will remind me never to do this again. Nothing wrong with aiming for “gravity” – just skip the “airs”.
The sense he gave of staying on the path rather than being kept on it.
Nice example for internal vs. external motivation, for which the English language has the ingenious must vs. have to pair. The vocabulary support for this subtle difference is sorely missed in Hungarian. I’m definitely going to write an “original” post about this sometime once I earn the right – i.e., have read enough for my opinion to be worth a damn.
The way he handled the material comforts that fortune had supplied him in such abundance – without arrogance and without apology. If they were there, he took advantage of them. If not, he didn’t miss them.
The “without arrogance” part is its own can of worms, but let’s not forget about the “without apology” part either. A can’t even count how many times I’ve run into situations where someone’s accomplishments have been almost negated because of their financial background. I mean, sure, nepotism = bad, daddy’s little boy/girl effect, whatever. But think about what you would do in that same situation? Wouldn’t you use your (potentially unfair) advantages? The foundation is not their feat (so they shouldn’t be arrogant about it), but why apologize for being able to build on it?
His willingness to take adequate care of himself. Not a hypochondriac or obsessed with his appearance, but not ignoring things either. With the result that he hardly ever needed medical attention, or drugs or any sort of salve or ointment.
If you’re living a valuable life – and there already have been, and will be many more, quotes about why you’d better – then at some level it becomes a moral duty to maintain yourself. So you can stick around longer to do whatever you’re doing.
No one’s master and no one’s slave.
Interesting to hear from the literal emperor, but still logical. After all, who needs the reminder about not getting too “lordy” more than an emperor? No one above me, no one below me.
But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human – however imperfectly – and fully embrace the pursuit that you’ve embarked on.
Perfection is an illusion. What matters is trying to reach it, not actually reaching it. It isn’t a coincidence that I “dare” start blogging about self-improvement without any relevant experience, or without actually being too much of an improved self to begin with. Is it gonna be perfect? No. Am I trying? Yes.
The best revenge is not to be like that.
For revenge to make sense, someone needs to hurt you first. And for someone to achieve that, you need to consider yourself hurt, which – as we will see in the Outlook section – is entirely your decision. Choose not to be hurt. Case closed.
Fight to be the person philosophy tried to make you.
Friendly reminder that philosophy is a fight against yourself. No one is squeezed from the womb enlightened, in a lotus pose. This might conflict a bit with the quote “straight, not straightened”, but I tend to prefer this approach. It doesn’t matter whether you started straight if you’re working, day in and day out, to get straight.
The only thing that isn’t worthless: to live this life out truthfully and rightly. And be patient with those who don’t.
I categorized this as a personality trait mostly because of the patience part at the end – but it could just as easily belong to Minimalism or People as well…
No time for reading.
Ha! And it’s not even the first time Marcus alludes to this. A bit of a paradox on a reading-based blog, eh? Pack up, people, we’re done here.
Seriously, though, I’m definitely going to ignore this for the foreseeable future. One possible interpretation would be that there’s no time to read for fun, because if you already know what you’d need to do, then go and do that instead of reading. I don’t think this is too widespread in a world where most us haven’t got a clue what we should be doing. And those of us who do won’t read this advice – as they’re busy doing what they’re supposed to.
Go straight to the seat of intelligence – your own, the world’s, your neighbor’s.
Read: personal experience beats everything else, as then you can be the source yourself.
And a few more, without comment:
A confidence founded on understanding. An unobtrusive confidence – hidden.
Stop talking about what the good man is like, and just be one.
The student as boxer, not fencer. The fencer’s weapon is picked up and put down again. The boxer’s is part of him.
Wow, such a fun subject! Good thing we’re already at the length of an average blog post, so you can switch over to a heartwarming cat video without any guilt…
No? Do we continue on? Okay, then… death!
The point is that death is a natural process which we can’t (and shouldn’t want to) control. And it’s pretty dumb to be afraid of something that’s both natural and uncontrollable. Sure, we’re rarely afraid of it actively, but that’s only because we like to pretend that it won’t happen to us. I mean, come on, only other people die, right?
It would be much more useful to face the thought of death, only instead of something to be feared, we would treat it as a source of motivation. If you feel like your time is running out, your priorities tend to sort themselves out pretty fucking quickly. Do you really need that overtime instead of spending it with your family? Do you really want to consume another episode of your favorite show instead of actually creating something? I refuse to come up with the third example – you get it.
So let’s use death as an aid. Let it help us take two steps back and put the whole of our lives in the different perspective. What do we want to achieve? And what would we need to be doing to achieve that (instead of what we’re probably doing right now)?
And now the quotes I’ve distilled all this from:
Remember […] that there is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.
[Remember] what dying is – and that if you look at it in the abstract and break down your imaginary ideas of it by logical analysis, you realize that it’s nothing but a process of nature, which only children can be afraid of.
So we need to hurry. Not just because we move daily closer to death but also because our understanding – our grasp of the world – may be gone before we get there.
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.
It doesn’t bother you that you weigh only x or y pounds and not three hundred. Why should it bother you that you have only x or y years to live and not more? You accept the limits placed on your body. Accept those placed on your time.
Okay, I have to comment here. I get the intent behind the comparison, sure, but I find it a bit ironic that in a modern society, the solution to the above problem is trying very hard not to respect the limits of our bodies either. Three hundred pounds is rookie numbers! Another cheeseburger for table six, please and thank you!
Khmm… Anyway, back to the quotes:
Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.
Perfection of character: to live your last day, every day, without frenzy, or sloth, or pretense.
Think about your life: childhood, boyhood, youth, old age. Every transformation a kind of dying. Was that so terrible?
Everything that exists is already fraying at the edges.
An incentive to treat death as unimportant: even people whose only morality is pain and pleasure can manage that much.
[The mind] turns obstacles into fuel. As a fire overwhelms what would have quenched a lamp.
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.
Everything has its price. The only question is whether we’re prepared to pay it or not. If we want something “at any cost”, then whatever obstacle the world puts in the way, we’re just going to use that to reach the goal, too.
Of course, despite the phrase “at any cost” being casually thrown around, the first inconvenience is usually sufficient to reveal how low the expected money/time/energy budget really was. 99% of “can’t”s could be easily converted to “didn’t want enough”. But if we do want it enough, we will find a way to not only circumvent what’s blocking us, but actually use it to help us along.
What’s the sanest thing that we can do or say? Whatever it may be, you can do or say it. Don’t pretend that anything’s stopping you.
The left hand is useless at almost everything, for lack of practice. But it guides the reins better than the right. From practice.
We should save the excuses – of which probably the most common is lack of talent. If we’re starting from a lower standard, that only means more practice is needed until a certain level is reached, not that it’s impossible to reach. Let’s not pretend this is complicated. It’s not easy, but it’s very simple.
This is the part we most likely associate to when hearing the work “stoic”. Contrary to the common interpretation, though, Marcus aptly demonstrates that it’s not about “not feeling” at all. It’s about the realization that we can actually decide what we feel.
Let’s think about the formation of feelings as a two-step process. First, we experience some outside stimulus, and then second (completely independently of the first step) we map this stimulus to a feeling. The problem is that for the average person, these two steps are so corroded together that the stimulus itself is enough to determine the feeling it brings with itself.
How this default association got installed (from before the corrosion) is not really important. The point is that it became permanent. And now the universe has the gall – nay, the audacity – to send the exact stimuli my way that I wired to negative feelings?! Outrageous!
We have to realize that the problem is not with the universe but with our perception. No one promised that “bad” stimuli won’t happen, but, more importantly, no one is forcing us to label these stimuli as “bad” in the first place.
And the solution? Let’s separate our fused-together perception pipeline, recognize that we have a choice in the second part of the process, and then exercise that choice consciously to adjust how we react to external events. The transformation this shift could bring is not unlike a world-altering superpower, and we can gain it in an instant!
That things have no hold on the soul. They stand there unmoving, outside it. Disturbance comes only from within – from our own perceptions.
Choose not to be harmed – and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed – and you haven’t been.
But don’t let the mind start in with judgments, calling it ‘good’ or ‘bad.’
You can live here as you expect to live there.
Nothing has meaning to my mind except its own actions. Which are within its own control.
Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do. Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you. Sanity means tying it to your own actions.
External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now.
How much more damage anger and grief do than the things that cause them.
Throw out your misperceptions and you’ll be fine.
If we take these to heart, we can establish a stable, central, default state of being that is undisturbed and undisturbable.
To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.
The mind without passions is a fortress.
Serenity, total calm, safe anchorage.
A default state worth returning to.
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.
Awaken; return to yourself. Now, no longer asleep, knowing they were only dreams, clear-headed again, treat everything around you as a dream.
If you’ve immersed yourself in the principles of truth, the briefest, most random reminder is enough to dispel all fear and pain.
It’s still essential to keep our worldview flexible and be open to new perspectives and knowledge. And before someone suggests that staying flexible is only important if one’s not set right: being “set” is itself the problem.
If anyone can refute me – show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective – I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.
All this has been about us – our minds, that is. But before we move on to others, let’s take a brief detour towards the materialistic outside world.
And the lesson there is clearly minimalism. At least, that’s what we would be calling it today. Being philosophers, though, we don’t leave ourselves behind, as we preach mental and material minimalism mutually. (This sentence has been sponsored by the letter M…)
If you seek tranquility, do less.
Ooh, ooh, I remember this from lit class: this is that oxymoron thingy! Pretty cool usage, isn’t it?
We find ourselves in a river. Which of the things around us should we value when none of them can offer a firm foothold?
If you can’t stop prizing a lot of other things? Then you’ll never be free – free, independent, imperturbable.
Wash yourself clean. With simplicity, with humility, with indifference to everything but right and wrong.
The rich man owns ‘so many goods he has no place to shit.’
This last one is a reference to a contemporary saying, which actually made me laugh out loud. Leave some space for shitting, people!
Lastly, the area that apparently caused no shortage of headaches for our favorite emperor and tested his faith in his own principles rigorously. For a start, here’s a few thoughts about how to treat others:
Don’t be put off by other people’s comments and criticism. If it’s right to say or do it, then it’s the right thing for you to do or say.
In a sense, people are our proper occupation. Our job is to do them good and put up with them.
Why do other souls – unskilled, untrained – disturb the soul with skill and understanding?
Leave other people’s mistakes where they lie.
When you run up against someone else’s shamelessness, ask yourself this: Is a world without shamelessness possible? No. Then don’t ask the impossible. There have to be shameless people in the world. This is one of them.
That you don’t know for sure it is a mistake. 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.
Another one of his go-to topics is the pointlessness of caring about other people’s opinions of us, or whether our name will survive. Ironic that despite not caring about it, his name will probably survive for pretty long still.
Beautiful things of any kind are beautiful in themselves and sufficient to themselves. Praise is extraneous. The object of praise remains what it was – no better and no worse.
Fame in a world like this is worthless.
The way people behave. They refuse to admire their contemporaries, the people whose lives they 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.
Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died and the same thing happened to both.
It doesn’t matter how good a life you’ve led. There’ll still be people standing around the bed who will welcome the sad event.
On a more poetic note, Stoics often used the “view from above” metaphor as a way to try and look at humanity as a whole. If we look from high enough, our differences and disagreements start to seem inconsequential, and we increasingly appear as one nation. In modern times, we don’t really have to image this anymore, since planes and even spaceships are a thing. But astronauts often report the same sentiment.
If you want to talk about people, you need to look down on the earth from above.
We close out our quote-collection with a few fame and tolerance-related ones that could have come straight from Marcus Aurelius’ solo stand-up hour. I just kept cackling when I imagined a Roman emperor writing stuff like this into his diary…
It’s quite possible to be a good man without anyone realizing it. Remember that.
People out for posthumous fame forget that the Generations To Come will be the same annoying people they know now.
There’s nothing more insufferable than people who boast about their own humility.
Well, it was “only” this much I wanted to mention. Like I said, this book is a gold mine. And while I know it was already long and dense enough, let me just mop up the last droplets of your attention with a little summary, in one simple tip per section:
- Know what’s important, and then concentrate on that!
- Don’t be a dickhead!
- Don’t be afraid of death; let it motivate you instead!
- Turn obstacles into ways!
- Realize that you can master yourself; and then master yourself!
- Be moderate!
- Be tolerant; but don’t give a shit about others’ opinions!
Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. The entirety of modern self-help in a 2000 year old, poetic package. Mandatory reading for everyone.