Marcus Aurelius’ book, Meditations, is one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read. This collection of private notes by the ancient Roman Emperor was originally written for personal reflection, and naturally had no title. When it was published after Aurelius’ death, it was titled Ta eis heauton, which translates to “things to one’s self”. The most commonly used title nowerdays is Meditations, which many think is misleading. This is because Marcus Aurelius makes clear in his writings that he doesn’t consider himself a philosopher. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could read this thought-provoking book without finding it anything less than profound. Here are 8 entires that had the most significant impact on me:
Time is a river, a violent current of events, glimpsed once and already carried past us, and another follows and is gone.4,6
This, along with many of the other entires regarding time, made me realise how quickly a moment ends and becomes a new one. In the weeks since I first read it, it has helped me to address several aspects of life, including my unhealthy habits with food. Eating badly for a moment of enjoyment hardly seems worth it when you realise how quickly the moment is over. It has been helping me to stay self controlled in areas of my life where I tend to choose momentary pleasure over better decisions.
To feel affection for people even when they make mistakes is uniquely human. You can do it, if you simply recognise: that they’re human too, that they act out of ignorance, against their will, and that you’ll both be dead before long. And, above all, that they haven’t really hurt you. They haven’t diminished your ability to choose.7,22
Aurelius writes a lot about how quickly life will be over. It’s an unsettling thought, but one that can really help to put things into perspective. It’s super easy to get caught up in the daily drama and politics of life and forget that everyone has their own stuff going on and basically wants the same thing we all want – love, acceptance, to be wanted — that sort of thing. Not to mention we all have death looming over us. We can always choose to sympathise, and if we do, it’s hard to hold onto any hard feelings.
To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.4,48
Staying consistent in hard times is something I struggle with. It’s very hard not to let tough situations ‘harsh my mellow’. Nevertheless it’s a trait I really want to get good at and I thought this entry illustrated it really well.
To move from one unselfish action to another with God in mind.
Only there, delight and stillness.6,7
I wrote a caption on one my Instagram posts not so long ago that related to this. I’ve spent most of my university years working for, thinking about and planning towards a future that would get me what I wanted. Reading the Meditations has been partially responsible for getting me back to a realisation that these things don’t satisfy and I need to gradually change my mindset towards selflessness. I’m obviously nowhere near this ideal today but that’s okay — I’m content with working from where I am knowing I eventually want to get to that point.
It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own.7,71
My biggest fear in life is doing something I’ll deeply regret that hurts myself and/or others. Suffering is one thing, but suffering because of something you’ve done, that makes other people suffer too, is my idea of the worst kind of suffering. Because of this, the last sentence really struck a chord with me.
Give yourself a gift: the present moment.
People out for posthumous fame forget that the Generations To Come will be the same annoying people they know now. And just as mortal. What does it matter to you if they say x about you, or think y?8,44
Besides being funny, this entry again addresses a common theme in Marcus Aurelius’ writings regarding the opinions of others. While I deeply care about what people think of me (judging by my own thoughts and actions), reading this entry perfectly illustrates why doing so is so fickle and meaningless. Should I waste time trying to get recognition from people I may not even like that much, or should I take a moment to enjoy spending time with Anne?
Nothing but what you get from first impressions. That someone has insulted you, for instance. That —but not that it’s done you any harm. The fact that my son is sick —that I can see. But “that he might die of it, ” no. Stick with first impressions. Don’t extrapolate. And nothing can happen to you.
Or extrapolate. From a knowledge of all that can happen in the world.8,49
I think reading this just minutes before a terrifying blow on an extremely turbulent flight helped me narrowly avoid a panic attack a few weeks ago. I kept saying to myself, “there’s turbulence, that’s all”. The idea of not extrapolating is a great antidote to the worrying part of our brains that constantly imagines up the worst-case scenarios. This simple idea has also offered some relief while coping with illness in my own family.
Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.7, 56
The TV shows, Peaky Blinders, tells the story of a man who returned from a war he wasn’t supposed to survive with a new found sense of freedom. Narrowly escaping death, Tommy Shelby’s attitude to life completely transforms. The thought of already having died forces you to consider what you might have regretted, or wished you’d done. Really thinking about these things can really help to realign your direction in life. It removes all the superficial things and cuts to what’s important. Again, this is not a particularly pleasant exercise, but quite a sobering one. Moreover, it’s one that Marcus Aurelius did many times throughout the book.
Besides providing a fascinating, deeply intimate insight into one of the most powerful men of the ancient world, the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius offers so many easy-to-read, accessible and relatable notes from someone trying to overcome many of the same difficult issues and questions we experience today. It has really changed the way I think about a lot of things and I already look forward to reading it again.
Have you read the Meditations? What’s your favourite entry? Comment below or message me here.