For those of you who have seen the movie Gladiator, you may recognise the name Marcus Aurelius as being the old emperor who offers Maximus the stewardship of Rome, only to be assassinated by his own son, inadvertently condemning Maximus to a butchered family and a life battling tigers in the Colosseum. None of those exciting events occur in the Meditations, but the vision of Aurelius as a benevolent, thoughtful emperor threads through his writings and this, rather than the Hollywood movie, is what Aurelius is rightfully remembered for.
I have, for a long time, been attracted to the philosophy of stoicism. This is the first time I’ve read it directly, in all other respects I have read about it referenced in other works or heard of its similarity in tone to many of the books and articles which have most stirred my admiration or struck an emotional chord. In recent weeks it has been calling to me from the shelf, but I have put off reading it knowing it would need a certain amount of focused attention which I had not been in a position to give. Then after all my travels, all the work pressures and the woozy-fug of seasonal tiredness and jet lag, it just felt like the right time. It was the right time.
The Meditations are a series of reflections, thoughts and ideas which Marcus Aurelius collected over his lifetime. Each meditation is a short passage, maybe a paragraph or two at most, and reflect Aurelius’s musings on his life, behaviour, the ‘right’ way to live and interact with others. The reflections are split into twelve books, and the whole selection is no more than around 150 pages long. In some respects the structure reminded me of Maggie Nelson’s work, though considerably less poetic and with fewer references to the works of others.
“If you are doing your proper duty let it not matter to you whether you are cold or warm, whether you are sleepy or well-slept, whether men speak badly or well of you, even whether you are on the point of death or doing something else: because even this, the act in which we die, is one of the acts of life, and so here too it suffices to ‘make the best move you can.’”
There’s a sense when reading the meditations that they weren’t intended for anyone other than Aurelius himself. It reads like a journal, actually a little like my own journal if you strip out some of the self-pity and the plotting and organising and add a massive dose of thoughtful philosophy. Aurelius appears to be self-coaching, reminding himself of what he finds admirable, the people and the behaviours he has admired and, perhaps more crucially, what he does not. Each passage is quite beautiful in its own right, but as the meditations build you begin to see a picture of the man and the kinds of ways of being which can lead to a life filled with meaning and value. He is modest, or tries to be modest, not puffed up with self-importance or the luxurious trappings of holding a throne; he believes in maintaining a constant mindfulness of the brevity of life, how fleeting and how soon forgotten (however important the individual); he talks of gratitude, of valuing what you have and not being consumed by desire or grief for what you do not. His is a philosophy of acceptance, but also one which strikes at its centre a core of steely self-determination, of living by ones own values and sticking to them rather than being pushed and pulled by the views and expectations of others. Self-control is an important trait, because only by knowing your own soul and being in command of it can you live a life of intention and purpose.
“Finally, then, remember this retreat into your own little territory within yourself. Above all, no agonies, no tensions. Be your own master, and look at things as a man [or woman…my insert], as a human being, as a citizen, as a mortal creature. And here are two of the most immediately useful thoughts you will dip into. First that things cannot touch the mind: they are external and inert; anxieties can only come from your internal judgement. Second, that all these things you see will change almost as you look at them, and then will be no more. Constantly bring to mind all that you yourself have already seen changed. The universe is change: life is judgement.”
There’s a certain amount of repetition in the meditations, perhaps not surprisingly Aurelius returned to certain themes over and over. Yet they were also themes I needed to hear, to be reminded of. That I should be grateful for the things, the many wonderful things, that I have, that I should accept the things I cannot change, that when I feel angry it is because I have allowed outside entities to upset my equilibrium, that nothing outside myself can touch me except if I allow it.
“Do not dream of possession of what you do not have: rather reflect on the greatest blessings in what you do have, and on their account remind yourself how much they would have been missed if they were not there. But at the same time you must be careful not to let your pleasure in them habituate you to dependency, to avoid distress if they are sometimes absent.”
Despite the fact that I knew I needed to give the meditations focused, uninterrupted attention I still found myself struggling to do them the justice they deserved. It is not a book which can be read quickly or superficially, though it does lend itself to being dipped into and out of at need. There were certain passages I read over and over because there was something within them I both needed to understand and remember. That life is brief, that if you take the long view very little matters at all; and I was reminded of a time, once, when we were having some ridiculous argument at work about a cupboard and people were getting heated and unkind and out of the blue I recalled a strange little piece of information – that it took 50,000 years for a photon of light to make its way from the centre of the sun to the surface, and a further 8 ½ minutes to make its way to my eye – and something about the fact that the light I was seeing was so ancient and the thought that if a photon of light was created that minute by the time it reached the Earth even the idea of a cupboard would probably be dead and gone, that suddenly it became so clear to me that what we were arguing about didn’t matter, nothing that we did mattered, and it was so easy, then, to let it all go. Letting things go is something Marcus Aurelius understood so well and so beautifully, and it in such a way that you know letting go is not so terrible, that we will die and be gone and forgotten and it’s okay because that’s how Nature is intended to work and all we ever lose is the present moment. We cannot lose the past or the future, because we’re in possession of neither. In some ways it is bleak, but it is also extremely comforting. I can’t explain why that is. I know it is not a philosophy that speaks to everyone, but it speaks volumes to me.
“You should avoid flattery as much as anger in your dealing with them: both are against the common good and lead to harm. In your fits of anger have this thought ready to mind, there is nothing manly in being angry, but a gentle calm is both more human and therefore more virile. It is the gentle who have strength, sinew and courage – not the indignant and complaining. The closer to control of emotion, the closer to power. Anger is as much a sign of weakness as is pain. Both have been wounded, and have surrendered.”
I have read the Meditations and I know I will read them again. I am frustrated that I could not quite yet bring myself to devote my entire attention to them. Perhaps not this time, but perhaps in the future, maybe not even the too distant future, I will read them again and perhaps then, and perhaps over the course of whatever remains of my life, I’ll learn the acceptance that Marcus Aurelius spent his life convincing himself he had to attain.