Meditations, Marcus Aurelius’s private diary and philosophical musings, accompany me on every trip, various underlined versions and editions adorning my office. * I have been reading Meditations for over a decade, and still find novel meaning in the writings that were once simply called: Notes to Himself. My literature professor in college had once commented that Tolstoy’s War and Peace needs to be reread in different periods of your life- that you would take a different lesson away. I read Meditations every time I am on a plane, and like a talisman, it promises to keep me safe- to remind me of how transient life is, and how easy it is to forget what is important and why we are here. What was it that was so appealing about Meditations?
While he lacked the sharp analytical rigor of a Plato or an Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius came from a place of personal experience, sincerity and spirituality. What a privilege it was to peek into his diaries and see how he must have wrestled with desire, principles, disillusionment, anger and all of our messy human emotions, all the while striving to do what was honorable. Imagine, an emperor of Rome in the second century AD. , the most powerful man alive, with half of the world at his feet, renouncing a life of luxury, pushing aside sycophants and choosing to live stoically. Who does that? And having as his inspiration the writings of a freed slave, Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher.
It was in Meditations that the world became aware of the inner workings of Marcus Aurelius’s mind, of how he consoled himself and reasoned with himself in his hours of distress. Ernest Renan, the French philosopher had once written that Meditations was “the most human of books.” It is the fact that the book was meant to be viewed only by the author’s eyes, that confers upon it utmost sincerity and power. Everything Marcus wrote had its basis in personal experience. In the words of one admirer the book was unequaled among others since it represented those of a “Caesar of Rome- to whom the emptiness of riches, the vanity of power, the hollowness of praise or fame are not a topic but an experience.” In other words, Marcus exactly knew that that which we coveted was in vain, and chose the highest of ideals instead. Like many Roman emperors before and after him, he could have easily chosen otherwise.
Meditations, the notes of an emperor to himself, would seem most impractical for us today, except that it was likely one of the first recorded self-help books in history. How could one use philosophy as a practical guide to ethical living and as a source of strength and comfort? How could we use philosophy as a means of reframing our reality and freeing ourselves of self-inflicted suffering? Written in his fifties and towards the end of his life, Marcus’s moral philosophy, inspired by Socrates, Heraclitus, and the Stoics, attempts to provide a manual for meaningful living.
To quote the Victorian author, Matthew Arnold:
The sentences of Seneca are stimulating to the intellect; the sentences of Epictetus are fortifying to the character; the sentences of Marcus Aurelius find their way to the soul.
*In this blog I will be quoting Marcus Aurelius Antonine to Himself, translated by Gerald H. Randall, ( London, ed. 1932). This work has been in the public domain since 2015 (marking seventy years since the passing of the author).