To me, the most alluring message of Meditations, is about preserving our personal power in the midst of a chaotic and unpredictable world. The fact that the author also wielded worldly power further confirms his assessment that true power can only come from within. Marcus Aurelius had learned that we can only rely on power over ourselves rather than over others. Centuries earlier, on another continent, another Prince, Siddhartha Gautama, later known as the Buddha, had also observed: “It’s better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles.”
How does one attain self-mastery according to Marcus Aurelius? Perhaps by not being swayed by our impulses, fears, momentary desires, irrational wants…. In other words, reflecting and thinking about our motives, actions and their consequences for all. By cultivating self-discipline that is based on higher principles ( i.e. the cardinal Stoic virtues of Practical Wisdom, Morality, Moderation, Courage) and by not being ruled by our passions, we come into possession of ourselves. We become sovereign over our inner selves by living for higher ideals that transcend immediate self-gratification. “No man can rob us of our will,” Marcus wrote. The well-trained mind was akin to an invulnerable citadel, he argued, and suggested that one retreat into oneself in order to be replenished.
“ Efface impression; stay impulse; quench inclination; be master of your Inner Self. Live with the Gods.”
Curiously, social scientists have also shown that our happiness is directly correlated to the degree of control we have over our own individual lives. Freedom is the precondition for happiness, as is autonomy to freely dream and take action towards our dreams. As we evolve, we begin to see the world in a more cooperative win/win paradigm, where we support others’ self-mastery and freedom as well.
While Marcus Aurelius’s perspective on self-mastery and self-improvement is an effective defense against suffering, it still falls short of delivering joy in the midst of a challenging world. It was rather Lucius Seneca, belonging to an earlier generation of philosophers, who had tackled the question of attaining happiness in spite of the obstacles we face. However, as a manual for self-empowerment, Meditations has stood the test of centuries. Marcus famously wrote: “If you remove your judgement of anything that seems painful, you yourself stand quite immune to pain.”