Six Lessons I Learned from Marcus Aurelius
I’ve been spread thin these past few months. I slipped away a bit from my intellectual pursuits. When that happens, I can always feel a part of myself being dragged away. It’s like watching someone you love drift off on a boat whilst standing on shore, belting out a tearful goodbye. There I go. This kind of stuff happens to me with some frequency in my life, so I’m used to it. Circumstances beyond my control drag me all around all the time. I’ve been able to find peace with it and make sense of it all, thanks to my trusty copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.
This book is old as hell. Marcus Aurelius was Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 AD. He wrote Meditations some time between 170 and 180. He’s pretty much the closest thing to Plato’s Philosopher King history ever gave us. History tends to not be very kind to us when doling out rulers. Meditations is a name the ages have assigned to the work. Aurelius himself didn’t have a name for it, as it was written only for himself and his own self-improvement. You could say it’s a kind of self-self-help book.
There’s nothing new here as far as ideas go, it’s just a practical application of Stoic philosophy. The beauty of Meditations is in its simple language and ideas. The work itself being a series of letters written to himself while on military campaign, fighting off the endless unwashed hordes of barbarian invaders that were a constant threat to the Roman Empire at that time. Because of this, there is the steady awareness of the inevitability of death and the acceptance of it permeating throughout the work. Aurelius himself dropped dead on campaign out there, as people back then tended to do. Some say it was disease, others say he was assassinated. Whatever it was, I like to think he was ready for it.
I struggled with the fear of my own death and the death of the people I love for years. I found understanding in Stoicism and parts of Buddhist philosophy — when I could strain out the supernatural and superstitious aspects of it. As I found myself more and more blocked lately, I turned back to Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism for help. I took the time to read Meditations again. When I put it down, I took these six lessons with me.
1. Cooler heads will prevail
What drew me to the book early on was its constant, common sense focus on death. In the second book of Meditations, Aurelius uses death as a reminder that our lives are ephemeral and our bodies subject to decay. We’re reminded to always have that in mind and not let our anxieties get the best of us. We will meet awful people and they may do awful things to us. Terrible things can and probably will happen to us. We should be ready for that. There’s no need to have a freak out. After all, we’re all just made up of all this disgusting stuff — guts and muscles and bones. We’re subject to the same laws of nature. An even temper and a just mind will suit you. True freedom and peace come from a mind that is able to control itself, rooted in reality.
2. Appreciate the little things
There’s a part in Meditations where Aurelius writes, “When a loaf of bread, for instance, is in the oven, cracks appear in it here and there; and these flaws, though not intended in the baking, have a rightness of their own, and sharpen the appetite. Figs, again, at their ripest will also crack open. When olives are on the verge of falling, the very imminence of decay adds its peculiar beauty to the fruit. So, too, the drooping head of a cornstalk, the wrinkling skin when a lion scowls, the drip of foam from a boar’s jaws, and many more such sights, are far from beautiful if looked at by themselves; yet as the consequences of some other process of Nature, they make their own contribution to its charm and attractiveness.”
There is beauty in the unconventional and asymmetrical, an aspect of his philosophy that echoes elements of Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetics. We should search for and recognize beauty in the more overlooked corners of nature. We should recognize that things in nature are often flawed and uneven. We should examine details and appreciate the little things. This in turn will help to make us more present, sensitive, observant and appreciative of our surroundings.
3. Serenity lies within
There will be people who dislike you and people who will like you, no matter what you do. We don’t have much control over the way others see us. The most we can do is act virtuous, to be good and do good things. Be careful not to cause injury to others, even when they give you a damn good reason to. It’s hard not to choke the shit out of someone who wrongs you, but you have to do the work to overcome the urge. Constantly stoking the embers of disdain will only give you a mind in turmoil. We can only truly find peace and serenity within ourselves, that kind of serenity can’t come from anywhere else. Be self-contained and don’t let the opinions or actions of others affect you, be they good or bad.
4. Be patient
We are often the victims of someone else’s wrongdoing. Some asshole did you wrong and man, is he gonna get it. He messed with the wrong motherfucker, didn’t he? I know that feeling, but it leads to no good. I’ve been there. An overly hotheaded or angry response can only damage us in the end. As Aurelius says in the text, “The best revenge is to be unlike him that performed the injury.” He again reminds us that we are but a speck in the universe and this too shall pass. Getting worked up over injury only makes us miserable and ultimately solves nothing. The key is to remain patient. That also means being patient with ourselves, to let our moments of seething anger pass over us. We have to be patient and let those emotions pass before we make rash decisions that could be damaging.
5. Stay connected
Ever feel like disconnecting yourself? I have, like, every single day. The easiest way out is to become detached from humanity. It seems a logical step in the process. After all, for how long can you tolerate all this wrongdoing? For how long can you stay patient and not be affected by what the people around you say and do? How long can you keep a cool mind before you just disconnect? But we disconnect from humanity at our own peril. Whether we like it or not, we are a part of the world and cutting ourselves off from the rest will only keep us from growing as people. It’s a kind of death in itself. We are a social animal. That’s not to say that we should all go start living together or try to become best friends with one another. I sure don’t want to get to know most of humanity, but we are interconnected — whether we like it or not. Don’t run and hide, we all see you. There are no truly safe places anyway. Aurelius likens it to cutting off a limb. We are all the sum of one giant part and it’s best if we play the game. So be a good sport.
6. Be humble
People will say and do horrible things because that’s just what people do, sorry. There will be attacks on our character. We are always prone to injury. The world is full of trouble. It’s expected that we will run into our fair share of it. We will die and it probably will be horrible. The most we can do is remain humble and sincere in the face of it all. We should love ourselves and take care of ourselves. This body, this little thing of flesh and blood and bones and guts — it’s all we have keeping us alive. Yet, it’s also important to remember it is only that. We must always remember how fragile and calamity-prone we are. Constantly reach back for the serenity and modesty within. The greatest and the weakest alike fall to the same end. There is great truth and freedom in that. So it’s important to stay humble and gentle. Most importantly, don’t forget your sense of humor, you’re gonna need it.
It’s important that we understand that life is suffering, bad things happen every second of the day and they will happen to us and the ones we love. Living a life — any life at all — is like being tossed about on an angry sea. Our lives are prone to so many events beyond our control. We’re even at the mercy of our own bodies, we’re dragged around like puppets by our endocrine systems, pumping out all kind of hormones, dictating our personalities. We’re the victims of our own sex drives and appetites — turning us into complete fools, making us gain weight and spend tons of money. Natural disasters happen. The stock market spins out of control. Our jobs are in flux. Our cars break down. Our relationships go south for whatever reason. A myriad other things beyond our control happen, good or bad. It’s important we recognize this and strive to be humble, patient, cool-headed, connected, appreciative and relatively serene — no matter what.
About Ryan FabianNew England writer and lover of knowledge.
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