Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is a powerful book that has stood the test of time. It can provide deeply helpful and important lessons to us all. However, before we discuss these lessons, we should recognise who the author was.
Marcus Aurelius (121-180AD), also known as ‘the Philosopher’, was Roman emperor from 161-180AD.
He is a widely popular emperor who spent most of his reign on military campaigns. Marcus Aurelius was a wise leader, one of the wisest emperors, and would often sit in his tent to ponder and write.
He was not consumed by fame, power or wealth despite being emperor of the Roman Empire. Marcus concerned himself with all manners of deep questions; such as, how to live a good life, how to endure all that life throws at you and how to be in control of your emotions, amongst other questions. He was a reader and follower of Stoic philosophy. These questions fall under this branch of philosophy.
He had duty and public service to attend to. Yet, when he had the time, he would produce notes and writings on what would later be known as the book Meditations. Marcus Aurelius was a wise and respected emperor during his life. However, his writing is what we remember him for today.
About the Book
Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is a series of notes, reflections and fragments of his thoughts surrounding Stoicism. During quiet times on his military campaigns, when he could, he would produce these private notes and tackle difficult but important questions.
The ideas in the book are not original but based on existing tenets of Stoic philosophy. Marcus reflected and wrote down his understanding of them. Thus, he left us with very wise and thoughtful ideas about many aspects of life.
Stoicism is a philosophy that teaches emotional stability and resilience so that we can face a challenging, cruel and unpredictable world. It advocates self-control so that we can combat frightening and all too common hardships that may befall us all in our lives. We can withstand these hardships if we are sensible about our expectations of life and reality.
Stoic philosophy helps us understand that having unrealistic expectations about our lives can cause us deep harm. Instead, we should learn to maintain control of our emotions. We should also be aware that, more often than not, we will have to undergo hard times.
Marcus Aurelius took great heed of these teachings. Much of Meditations urges for acceptance of an unchangeable universe, and the importance of mental strength and calmness when recognising this.
Lessons we can learn from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations
Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations can provide us with wise words that could prove to be deeply valuable to us when faced with hardships and adversity. He speaks to us, not as a Roman emperor, but as a fellow human being who has experienced, felt and grappled with aspects of life as much as we and everyone else has.
Here are 10 lessons to be learnt from Meditations:
1. Be a good character, rather than wondering how to be it
“Don’t go on discussing what a good person should be. Just be one.”
We may spend time thinking about what it is to be a good person, or whether we need to be better in order to reach that goal. Yet, sometimes it is best to stop overthinking and just do what you know to be good. This could be simple things like being kind, listening to a friend when they are in need, being honest or remembering your manners.
Thinking about how to be good can distract us from the fact that it is the little, every day acts that build the goodness within us. We already know this to be true, so we should just do it.
2. It is your thoughts that determine your well-being and fulfilment
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”
Fulfilment cannot come to us solely through external events. We may find happiness in brief moments with our interactions with the world. However, this will never fully satisfy us in our desires to be content.
True fulfilment comes through peace of mind. Being in control of your emotions, having the ambition to achieve your goals or being thankful for what you have are all things you can craft through your mindset. Then you can work towards fulfilment.
3. You cannot change what happens in the world, but you can change what you think about it
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
The idea that the universe and nature are set and unchangeable is a big theme in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. We cannot change events that happen, so there is no point in feeling bitter about them. Hardships are made worse by how you view them in your mind.
We don’t have the power to stop bad things happening to us. Yet, we have the power to process and deal with them in a reasonable and healthy way. You will then emerge stronger than you were before.
4. Be grateful for what you have
“When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love …”
Stop resenting what you don’t have and be grateful for what you do have. It is simply a privilege to be alive, as Marcus Aurelius said. We are very lucky to be conscious, to have friends, to have hobbies and to be loved by others.
Stopping and reflecting on what liberties you currently have can make you aware of how rich your life already is, despite any material desires you may have.
5. Live only and completely in the present
“Do every act of your life as though it were the very last act of your life.”
Due to the universe being an unalterable and unchangeable state, we cannot change the past. We should not dwell on past events, and we should not overly concern ourselves with what may happen in the future.
Instead, you should live every day to the full and make the most of every opportunity that comes your way. At the same time, you should also try and eradicate bitterness from your thoughts.
6. Recognise that bad and unexpected things can happen to you, and you will be prepared for whatever comes your way
“How ridiculous and unrealistic is the man who is astonished at anything that happens in life.”
Stoicism teaches us not to have unrealistic expectations about what can happen to us in life. These unrealistic expectations can make us unprepared for hardships.
As a result, we will struggle to deal with them because of their abrupt and shocking nature. We will be able to maintain composure and mental stability during difficult times if we recognise that we will all encounter challenging and adverse events in our lives at some point.
7. No feet is too high, and no goal is too out of reach
“Because a thing seems difficult for you, do not think it impossible for anyone to accomplish.”
Perhaps you are studying to be a doctor, training for a marathon, trying to get a break in the music industry or wanting to build a successful business and you feel you haven’t accomplished much so far. You are finding it arduous, strenuous and are ready to quit.
You can push past these obstacles by gaining and sustaining a strong mindset and a belief that you are capable of achieving these things. Just because something is difficult, it doesn’t mean it is not achievable.
8. Stop worrying about what other people think of you
“How much time he gains who does not look to see what his neighbour says or does or thinks, but only at what he does himself, to make it just and holy.”
Concerning yourself with what other people think of you can waste so much time. It can be a huge detriment to you as it could prevent you from achieving your goals. Or, it can deeply affect your well being if people’s opinions are a slander on your character.
Other people’s views on your character should not and do not have any considerable impact on your life. We can utilise the time we spend on worrying about this much more healthily in many ways. For example, you can focus more on achieving that goal, or strive for peace of mind.
9. Value the right things in life and your life will have value
“A person’s worth is measured by the worth of what he values.”
What we value, what we are concerned about most and what is most important to us determines what sort of life we lead. For example, if what you value most are money and material possessions then there is probably some meaningful substance missing from your life.
Whereas, if what you value most is the well-being of your family and friends, your own well-being, your relationships with others or a meaningful career, then you have a chance of a content and fulfilled life.
10. No matter what happens to us, we can and will all move on
“Though you break your heart, men will go on as before.”
Stoicism likes to place focus on the fact that we will face dark times during our lives. We may be stung by grief, heartbroken at the breakdown of a relationship or have detrimental periods of financial struggle. We will all suffer and be hit by deep anguish and pain. Often, we may feel that we can’t move forward.
However, being aware that these things are a matter of fact of life can help us become emotionally stable and resolute when we need to be the most. It will be painful and arduous, but we can get through it, just like others have before us.
Why Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is important
The lessons we learn from this book are profoundly applicable to our lives today, despite being written 2 millennia ago. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations speaks about the universal issues that we all face as humans.
The fact that it was written 2000 years ago demonstrates how deeply rooted these issues are in our existence. It shows the necessity of thinking about and discussing them.
Marcus Aurelius speaks to us, not as a Roman emperor, but as a human being. We can find comfort in the fact that even a Roman emperor tackled the same strife as us.
- Image: Istanbul Archaeological Museum, room 6 – Bust of emperor Marcus Aurelius. — Picture by Giovanni Dall’Orto, May 28, 2006.
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