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🤔 Pre Read Exercise: What Do I Know About This Topic/Book?
I’ve heard a lot about this book and the broader stoic philosophers through various podcasts, articles, and books, including those from Tim Ferriss, Ryan Holiday, and Naval Ravikant. I’ve also read Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life. I understand the basic premise that “virtue is the only good” and that external things like health, wealth, and pleasure aren’t good or bad.
🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences
- Meditations is a collection of Marcus Aurelius’ journal entries and reflections during his time as emperor of Rome.
- A profound insight into the mind of one of the most powerful men in the world.
- A book that provides a “design for living” - a set of rules to live one’s life by.
Generally speaking, I don’t find Philosophy particularly profound. It has never really really hit home for me. And I’ve done my fair share of exploration. But this book was a little different... I think it’s because it was written by Marcus Aurelius himself, at a time when he was the most powerful man in the world. This fact made the entire book far more gripping, enticing, applicable and believable for me. It added a layer of colour and realism to the philosophical statements he makes, and this helped me engage with and enjoy the book on a far deeper level. The Gregory Hays translation was also really good - I’d tried one other version of the book before and found it a little cryptic.
🔍 How I Discovered It
I’ve been recommended the book by a number of friends and various figures like Tim Ferriss, Naval Ravikant and Ryan Holiday won’t shut up about it.
🥰 Who Would Like It?
It’s a pretty light and accessible read - though each sentence has so much to unpack. I feel this book could be thoroughly studied or casually enjoyed. Thus, most people would enjoy this. I think it would be of particular interest to those early in their journey of learning more about philosophy or how to lead a more essentialist life, and those plagued by anxieties, looking for a set of rules to live by.
📒 Summary + Notes
Marcus Aurelius 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.
Intelligence. Think of it this way: You are an old man. Stop allowing your mind to be a slave, to be jerked about by selfish impulses, to kick against fate and the present, and to mistrust the future.
You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.
The longest-lived and those who will die soonest lose the same thing. The present is all that they can give up, since that is all you have, and what you do not have, you cannot lose.
The human soul degrades itself:
- Above all, when it does its best to become a kind of detached growth on the world. To be disgruntled at anything that happens is a kind of secession from Nature, which comprises the nature of all things.
- When it turns its back on another person or sets out to do it harm, as the souls of the angry do.
- When it is overpowered by pleasure or pain.
- When it puts on a mask and does or says something artificial or false.
- When it allows its action and impulse to be without a purpose, to be random and disconnected: even the smallest things ought to be directed toward a goal. But the goal of rational beings is to follow the rule and the laws of the most ancient of communities and states.
Human life. Duration: momentary. Nature: changeable. Perception: dim. Condition of Body: decaying. Soul: spinning around. Fortune: unpredictable. Lasting Fame: uncertain. Sum Up: The body and its parts are a river, the soul a dream and mist, life is warfare and a journey far from home, lasting reputation is oblivion.
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.
You need to avoid certain things in your train of thought: everything random, everything irrelevant. And certainly everything self-important or malicious. You need to get used to winnowing your thoughts, so that if someone says, “What are you thinking about?” you can respond at once (and truthfully) that you are thinking this or thinking that. And it would be obvious at once from your answer that your thoughts were straightforward and considerate ones—the thoughts of an unselfish person, one unconcerned with pleasure and with sensual indulgence generally, with squabbling, with slander and envy, or anything else you’d be ashamed to be caught thinking.
Never regard something as doing you good if it makes you betray a trust, or lose your sense of shame, or makes you show hatred, suspicion, ill will, or hypocrisy, or a desire for things best done behind closed doors.
Always define whatever we perceive—so we can see what it really is: its substance. Stripped bare. As a whole. Unmodified. And to call it by its name—the thing itself and its components, to which it will eventually return. Nothing is so conducive to spiritual growth as this capacity for logical and accurate analysis of everything that happens to us. To look at it in such a way that we understand what need it fulfills, and in what kind of world.
People try to get away from it all—to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like. By going within. Nowhere you can go is more peaceful—more free of interruptions—than your own soul. Especially if you have other things to rely on. An instant’s recollection and there it is: complete tranquillity.
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. This applies, I think, even to “beautiful” things in ordinary life—physical objects, artworks.
If you seek tranquillity, do less. Or (more accurately) do what’s essential—what the logos of a social being requires, and in the requisite way. Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better. Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquillity. Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary?” But we need to eliminate unnecessary assumptions as well. To eliminate the unnecessary actions that follow.
Nothing that goes on in anyone else’s mind can harm you. Nor can the shifts and changes in the world around you. Then where is harm to be found? In your capacity to see it. Stop doing that and everything will be fine. Let the part of you that makes that judgment keep quiet even if the body it’s attached to is stabbed or burnt, or stinking with pus, or consumed by cancer. Or to put it another way: It needs to realize that what happens to everyone—bad and good alike—is neither good nor bad. That what happens in every life—lived naturally or not—is neither natural nor unnatural.
The world as a living being—one nature, one soul. Keep that in mind. And how everything feeds into that single experience, moves with a single motion. And how everything helps produce everything else. Spun and woven together.
What am I doing with my soul? Interrogate yourself, to find out what inhabits your so-called mind and what kind of soul you have now. A child’s soul, an adolescent’s, a woman’s? A tyrant’s soul? The soul of a predator—or its prey?
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.
- Things gravitate toward what they were intended for.
Keep in mind how fast things pass by and are gone—those that are now, and those to come. Existence flows past us like a river: the “what” is in constant flux, the “why” has a thousand variations. Nothing is stable, not even what’s right here. The infinity of past and future gapes before us—a chasm whose depths we cannot see. So it would take an idiot to feel self-importance or distress. Or any indignation, either. As if the things that irritate us lasted.
So other people hurt me? That’s their problem. Their character and actions are not mine. What is done to me is ordained by nature, what I do by my own.
Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Or that this noble vintage is grape juice, and the purple robes are sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood. Or making love—something rubbing against your penis, a brief seizure and a little cloudy liquid. Perceptions like that—latching onto things and piercing through them, so we 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—to lay them bare and see how pointless they are, to strip away the legend that encrusts them.
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.
Treat what you don’t have as nonexistent. Look at what you have, the things you value most, and think of how much you’d crave them if you didn’t have them. But be careful. Don’t feel such satisfaction that you start to overvalue them—that it would upset you to lose them.
Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.
The first step: Don’t be anxious. Nature controls it all. And before long you’ll be no one. The second step: Concentrate on what you have to do. Fix your eyes on it. Remind yourself that your task is to be a good human being; remind yourself what nature demands of people. Then do it, without hesitation, and speak the truth as you see it. But with kindness. With humility. Without hypocrisy.
- with the body you inhabit;
- with the divine, the cause of everything in all things;
- with the people around you.
Injustice is a kind of blasphemy. Nature designed rational beings for each other’s sake: to help—not harm—one another, as they deserve. To transgress its will, then, is to blaspheme against the oldest of the gods.
And to lie is to blaspheme against it too. Because “nature” means the nature of that which is. And that which is and that which is the case are closely linked, so that nature is synonymous with Truth—the source of all true things. To lie deliberately is to blaspheme—the liar commits deceit, and thus injustice. And likewise to lie without realizing it. Because the involuntary liar disrupts the harmony of nature—its order. He is in conflict with the way the world is structured. As anyone is who deviates toward what is opposed to the truth—even against his will. Nature gave him the resources to distinguish between true and false. And he neglected them, and now can’t tell the difference.
Look how tiring it is—this cacophony we live in. Enough to make you say to death, “Come quickly. Before I start to forget myself, like them.”
To do harm is to do yourself harm. To do an injustice is to do yourself an injustice—it degrades you. And you can also commit injustice by doing nothing.
You participate in society by your existence. Then participate in its life through your actions—all your actions. Any action not directed toward a social end (directly or indirectly) is a disturbance to your life, an obstacle to wholeness, a source of dissension. Like the man in the Assembly—a faction to himself, always out of step with the majority.
When you call someone “untrustworthy” or “ungrateful,” turn the reproach on yourself. It was you who did wrong. By assuming that someone with those traits deserved your trust. Or by doing them a favor and expecting something in return, instead of looking to the action itself for your reward. What else did you expect from helping someone out? Isn’t it enough that you’ve done what your nature demands? You want a salary for it too? As if your eyes expected a reward for seeing, or your feet for walking. That’s what they were made for. By doing what they were designed to do, they’re performing their function. Whereas humans were made to help others. And when we do help others—or help them to do something—we’re doing what we were designed for. We perform our function.
Are you ever going to achieve goodness? Ever going to be simple, whole, and naked—as plain to see as the body that contains you? Know what an affectionate and loving disposition would feel like? Ever be fulfilled, ever stop desiring—lusting and longing for people and things to enjoy? Or for more time to enjoy them? Or for some other place or country—“a more temperate clime”? Or for people easier to get along with? And instead be satisfied with what you have, and accept the present—all of it. And convince yourself that everything is the gift of the gods, that things are good and always will be, whatever they decide and have in store for the preservation of that perfect entity—good and just and beautiful, creating all things, connecting and embracing them, and gathering in their separated fragments to create more like them. Will you ever take your stand as a fellow citizen with gods and human beings, blaming no one, deserving no one’s censure?
Stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and ask yourself: Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore?
When faced with people’s bad behavior, turn around and ask when you have acted like that. When you saw money as a good, or pleasure, or social position. Your anger will subside as soon as you recognize that they acted under compulsion (what else could they do?). Or remove the compulsion, if you can.