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The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

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It's been a long time since I last read Stoic philosophy. I think the last work of this type that I read was the brief Handbook of Epictetus as an undergraduate. I didn't like it much. Mostly because my girlfriend at the time (who was a major repair-job) loved it. She was using the emotional detachment ideas to get over this jerk she dated before me. Nice. As a result, I thought that stoicism was just a mask that emotionally weak people wore to hide the honest and hard-earned scars on their souls. Logos, detachment, "the whole" = chicken****.

But that was then. I don't really trust the self-important, hot-shot judgment that I had back then. Could stoicism kindle my intellectual fire? I bought Marcus Aurelius' The Meditations (Grube translation) to find out.

The Meditations begins with a series of odes to people in Aurelius' life who have demonstrated unique moral or personal characteristics. Many of these are touching, emotional, and reflective and (really) against the grain of the general stoic practice of emotional distance. None the less, there are some gems here:

From his father:

not to take an empty pride in what are considered honors; to love work and to persevere in it; to listen to those who have something to contribute to the common good. . . .to use the comforts of life without arrogance or apology when fortune provides them when they are available, without making practice of it, and not to feel the lack of them when they are not. . .
These and many other observed qualities from the first book find their way into aphoristic style and structure of the remaining 100 pages that Aurelius uses as (almost) spiritual prayers or reminders of how to live a good life, make good decisions, and do good work.

Philosophically, Aurelius reiterates his belief in a guiding logos (sometimes found within divinity; sometimes logos assumes a divinity itself), a naturally derived order to which humans must synchronize if they are to be wise, and on our tendency to fall for the femme fatales of praise, fear, and greed.

While the reading is often repetitive, the cumulative effect of the repetition is that of mantra or a family prayer before an evening meal: the repetition itself draws on the power of routine and language to build meaning.

Some more of my favorites:

This on the habit of pure thoughts:
The kind of thought you frequently have will make your mind of the same kind
This on individual will and authority:
Be upright or be put right
And this, my overall favorite:
The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, insofar as one should stand ready for, and not be thrown by, whatever happens unexpectedly.
This last makes me reflect back on my former girlfriend who had the bad beak up. Maybe she used stoicism to stand up right after she had been thrown, not as a mask to hide behind. Maybe in my mind, I was cruel to her for thinking as I did, and in those thoughts, discolored my mind.

Marcus tells me this:
when you are impatient, remember that the life of a man lasts but a moment, and after brief while we have all been laid out for burial.
And this:
rational beings are born for the sake of each other, that tolerance is a part of rightness



  1. Virgil's Avatar
    It's been many years since I read Meditations, but I always remember that tribute Aurelius pays his father at the beginning. It's one of those fragments of literature that stays with me.