Marcus Aurelius concludes his introduction to Meditations with the following:
Thanks too that, in spite of my ardor for philosophy, I did not fall into the hands of a professor, or sit poring over essays or syllogisms….
In other words, Marcus is happy to have avoided a strictly theoretical study of philosophy, while in a twist of fate, he did ironically fall into the hands of professors. For him philosophy was a manual for practical living, like a beacon, it guided his way through the darkness and provided a model to emulate. Interestingly Marcus Aurelius never claimed to have been a philosopher (even to himself) and in fact has hardly added anything to the theoretical opus of the late Roman Stoics. He was undoubtedly inspired by the Platonic ideal of the philosopher-king and tried to live his philosophy, which was a mixture of various ancient schools of thought. Marcus lived his philosophy as a form of self-help, “a soothing ointment” as he called it. And he urged us to do the same, and to use our convictions as a way of finding an anchor in an ever changing world.
Marcus Aurelius cautions us against going along with accepted norms, conforming to the ways of the majority, and buying into the values that dominate conventional society. He would have surely taken issue with the prevailing narcissism of our times, spurred on by social media, instant gratification, and the commercialization of human interactions.
In his notes to himself, Marcus Aurelius is mostly reminding himself of his beliefs, coaxing himself to be strong, and to overcome his instinctive reactions. We are here privy to his self-talk, and at times his berating of self. Marcus deliberately chooses to respond to the world with a rational and philosophical perspective. He chooses to have self-control, because he has decided that there is power and dignity in gentleness, and weakness in giving in to anger, whether spontaneous or retributive. He wasn’t pretentious or pretending to be erudite. Marcus never called himself a philosopher, and yet today is one of the most translated of “philosophers”.