Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Meditations

 

Summary
  1. Marcus Aurelius was the Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 and Meditations is a collection of axioms to live by that he never intended anybody else to see, forget being published and one of the most read books of all time. It offers incredible insights into his mind and how he perceived the world and wanted to live in it.
Key Takeaways
  1. Focused on the three “disciplines”: the disciplines of perception, of actions and of the will
    1. Perception – absolute objectivity of thought
    2. Action – humans are social animals and must act as nature intended us to
    3. Will – discipline of will governs attitude of things not in our control
  2. At every instant the objects and events in the world around us bombard us with impressions. As they do so they produce a phantasia, a mental impression. From this the mind generates a perception (hypolepsis), which might best be compared to a print made from a photogenic negative. Ideally this print will be an accurate and faithful representation of the original. But it may not be. It may be blurred, or it may include shadow images that distort or obscure the original. Chief among these are inappropriate value judgments: the designation as “good” or “evil” of things that in fact are neither good nor evil. It is, in other words, not objects and events but the interpretations we place on them that are the problem
  3. Aim for “Gravity without airs”
  4. To be free of passion and yet full of love
  5. You need to avoid certain things in your train of thought: everything random, everything irrelevant
  6. “…if you find there’s nothing more important or valuable…then don’t make room for anything but it – for anything that might lead you astray, tempt you off the road, and leave you unable to devote yourself completely to achieving the goodness that is uniquely yours.”
  7. “No random actions, none not based on underlying principles”
  8. “Do less, better”
  9. “Things have no hold on the soul”
  10. “Things ordinary people are impressed by fall into the categories of things that are held together by simple physics…Those admired by more advanced minds are held together by a living soul…Still more sophisticated people admire what is guided by a rational mind…But those who revere that other mind – the one we all share, as humans and as citizens – aren’t interested in other things. Their focus is on the state of their own minds – to avoid all selfishness and illogic, and to work with others to achieve that goal”
  11. “You take things you don’t control and define them as “good” or “bad.” And so of course when the “bad” things happen, or the “good” ones don’t, you blame the gods and feel hatred for the people responsible – or those you decide to make responsible. Much of our bad behavior stems from trying to apply those criteria. If we limited “good” and “bad” to our own actions, we’d have no call to challenge God, or to treat other people as enemies.”
  12. “The only thing that isn’t worthless: to live this life out truthfully and rightly. And be patient with those who don’t.”
  13. “Things can’t shape our decisions by themselves”
  14. “Straight, not straightened”
  15. Helping them isn’t yet its own reward. You’re still seeing it only as The Right Thing To Do. You don’t yet realize who you’re really helping
  16. “External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now.”
  17. “What doesn’t transmit light creates its own darkness”
  18. “To stop talking about what the good man is like, and just be one.”
  19. “That no one can say truthfully that you are not a straightforward or honest person. That anyone who thinks that believes a falsehood. The responsibility is all yours; no one can stop you from being honest or straightforward. Simply resolve not to go on living if you aren’t. It would be contrary to the logos”
  20. “I am released from those around me. Not dragged against my will, but unresisting”
  21. “It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own”
What I got out of it
  1. The principles that Marcus Aurelius lays out here are just as relevant, if not more so, today than they were almost 2000 years ago. Dozens of powerful yet succinct messages that I believe can help anybody in any walk or stage of life. Highly recommend

Read Meditations

Introduction:

  • Marcus Aurelius never thought of himself as a philosopher and Meditations was not only written not written for publication, but Marcus clearly had no expectation that anyone but himself would ever read it
  • Soon after Aurelius came to power, relations with between Rome and its only rival, the Parthian empire in the East, took a dramatic turn for the worse
  • Philosophy was not merely a subject to write or argue about, but one that was expected to provide a “design for living” – a set of rules to live one’s ‘life by
  • Stoicism 
    • Perhaps the most important doctrine of Stoicism is the unwavering conviction that the world is organized in a rational and coherent way
    • Humans are responsible for their choice and actions even thought these have been anticipated by the logos (divine animating principle of the universe) and form part of its plan
  • The questions Meditations tries to answer are primarily metaphysical and ethical ones: Why are we here? How should we live our lives? How can we ensure that we do what is right? How can we protect ourselves against the stresses and pressures of daily life? How should we deal with misfortune?
  • Our duty to act justly does not mean that we must treat others as our equals, it means that we must treat them as they deserve
  • We control our own actions and are responsible for them…By contrast, things outside our control have no ability to harm us
  • Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option: to accept this event with humility [will]; to treat this person as he should be treated [action]; to approach this thought with care, so that nothing irrational creeps in [perception]
  • The sense of mortality pervades the book but death is not to be feared
  • Affection for the natural world contrasts with a persistent sense of disgust and contempt for human life and other human beings
  • Does not offer us a means of achieving happiness, but only a means of resisting pain
Book 1 – Debts and Lessons
  • Independence and unvarying reliability, and to pay attention to nothing, no matter how fleetingly, except the logos. And to be the same in all circumstances – intense pain, the loss of a child, chronic illness.
  • Dogged determination to treat people as they deserve
  • Self-reliance, always. And cheerfulness
  • You could have said of him [his adopted father] (as they say of Socrates) that he knew how to enjoy and abstain from things that most people find it hard to abstain from and all too easy to enjoy. Strength, perseverance, self-control in both areas: the mark of a soul in readiness – indomitable
Book 2 – On the River Gran, Among the Quadi
  • Instead, as if you were dying right now, despise your flesh. A mess of blood, pieces of bone,a  woven tangle of nerves, veins, arteries. Consider what the spirit is: air, and never the same air, but vomited out and gulped in again every instant. Finally, the intelligence. Think of it his way: You are an old man. stop allowing your mind to be a slave, to be jerked about by selfish impulses, to kick against fate and the present, and to mistrust the future
  • If it doesn’t harm your character, how can it harm your life?
  • But death and life, success and failure, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty, all these happen to good and bad alike, and they are neither noble nor shameful – and hence neither good nor bad
  • …you can’t lose either the past or the future; how could you lose what you don’t have?
  • Then what can guide us? Only philosophy. Which means making sure that the power within stays safe and free from assault, superior to pleasure and pain, doing nothing randomly or dishonestly and with imposture, not dependent on anyone else’s doing something or not doing it. And making sure that it accepts what happens and what it is dealt as coming from the same place it came from. And above all, that it accepts death in a cheerful spirit, as nothing but the dissolution of the elements from each living thing is composed. If it doesn’t hurt the individual elements to change continually into one another, why are people afraid of all of them changing and separating? It’s a natural thing. And nothing natural is evil.
Book 3 – In Carnuntum
  • Choose what’s best. Best is what benefits me
  • Your ability to control your thoughts – treat it with respect. It’s all that protects your mind from false perceptions – false to your nature, and that of all rational beings
  • Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it: Each of us lives only now, this brief instant
Book 4
  • What’s there to complain about? People’s misbehavior? But take into consideration: that rational beings exist for one another; that doing what’s right sometimes requires patience; that no one does the wrong thing deliberately
  • The world is nothing but change. Our life is only perception
  • It was for the best. So Nature had no choice but to do it
  • The tranquility that comes when you stop caring what they say. Or think, or do. Only what you do
  • What use is praise, except to make your lifestyle a little more comfortable?
  • Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary?”
  • Unrestrained moderation
  • What is “eternal” fame? Emptiness. Then what should we work for? Only for this: proper understanding, unselfish action, truthful speech. A resolve to accept whatever happens as necessary and familiar, flowing like water from the same source and spring
  • …what happens to everyone – bad and good alike – is neither good nor bad
  • Time is a river, a violent current of events, glimpsed once and already carried past us, and another follows and is gone
  • To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it
Book 5
  • Some people, when they do someone a favor, are always looking for a chance to call it in. And some aren’t, but they’re still aware of it – still regard it as a debt. But others don’t even do that. They’re like a vine that produces grapes without looking for anything in return
  • So there are two reasons to embrace what happens. One is that it’s happening to you. It was prescribed for you, and it pertains to you. The thread was spun long ago, by the oldest cause of all [Nature]. The other reasons is that what happens to an individual is a cause of well-being in what directs the world – of its well-being, its fulfillment, of its very existence even
  • The things you think about determine the quality of your mind
  • Things gravitate toward what they were intended for. What things gravitate toward is their goal
  • Nothing happens to anyone that he can’t endure
  • If it does not harm the community, it does not harm its members
  • Remember: Matter. How tiny your share of it. Time. How brief and fleeting your allotment of it. Fate. How small a role you play in it
  • Why do other souls – unskilled, untrained – disturb the soul with skill and understanding?
  • Nothing belongs to you but your flesh and blood – and nothing else is under your control
  • …true good fortune is what you make for yourself. Good fortune: good character, good intentions and good actions
Book 6
  • Look inward. Don’t let the true nature or value of anything elude you
  • The best revenge is not to be like that
  • That’s what we need to do all the time – all through our lives when things lay claim to our trust – to lay them bare and see how pointless they are, to strip away the legend that encrusts them
  • …Which is all that public praise amounts to – a clacking of tongues
  • And if you can’t stop prizing a lot of other things? Then you’ll never be free
  • If anyone can refute me – show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective – I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance
  • Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died and the same thing happened to both. They were absorbed alike into the life force of the world, or dissolved alike into atoms
  • Our lives are short. The only rewards of our existence here are unstained character and unselfish acts
  • Nothing has meaning to my mind except its own actions. Which are within its own control. And it’s only the immediate ones that matter. Its past and future actions too are meaningless
  • If you’ve seen the present then you’re seeing everything – as it’s been since the beginning, as it will be forever
  • Nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visibly embodied in the people around us, when we’re practically showered with them
  • It doesn’t bother you that you weight only x or y pounds and not three hundred. Why should it bother you that you have only x or y years to live and not more? You accept the limits placed on your body. Accept those placed on your time.
  • Practice really hearing what people say. Do your best to get inside their minds
Book 7
  • Well-being is good lock, or good character
  • Treat what you don’t have as nonexistent. Look at what you have, the things you value most, and think of how much you’d crave them if you didn’t have them. But be careful. Don’t feel such satisfaction that you start to overvalue them – that it would upset you to lose them
  • [On death:] If atoms, dispersed. If oneness, quenched or changed
  • To love only what happens, what was destined. No greater harmony
  • It’s quite possible to be a good man without anyone realizing it. Remember that. And this too: you don’t need much to live happily. And just because you’ve abandoned your hopes of becoming a great thinker or scientist, don’t give up on attaining freedom, achieving humility, serving others, obeying God.
  • You’ve given aid and they’ve received it. And yet, like an idiot, you keep holding out for more: to be credited with a Good Deed, to be repaid in kind. Why?
Book 8
  • Nature of any kind thrives on forward progress. And progress for a rational mind means not accepting falsehood or uncertainty in its perceptions, making unselfish actions its only aim, seeking and shunning only the things it has control over, embracing what nature demands of it…
  • If it’s in your control, why do you do it? If it’s in someone else’s, then who are you blaming? Atoms? The gods? Stupid either way. Blame no none. Set people straight, if you can. If not, just repair the damage. And suppose you can’t do that either. Then where does blaming people get you? No pointless actions
  • All our decisions, urges, desires, aversions lie within. No evil can touch them
  • Give yourself a gift: the present moment

Book 9

  • Injustice is a kind of blasphemy…And to lie is to blaspheme against it too…And to pursue pleasure as good, and flee from pain as evil – that too is blasphemous
  • To do harm is to do yourself harm. To do an injustice is to do yourself an injustice – it degrades you
  • And you can also commit injustice by doing nothing
  • Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it because it was within me, in my own perceptions – not outside
  • That to be remembered is worthless. Like fame. Like everything
Book 10
  • Everything that happens is either endurable or not. If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining. If it’s unendurable…then stop complaining. your destruction will mean its end as well.
Book 11
  • How much more damage anger and grief do than the things that cause them
Book 12
  • Your three components: body, breath, mind. Two are yours in trust; to the third alone do you have clear title. If you can cut yourself – your mind – free of what other people do and say, of what you’ve said or done, of the things that you’re afraid will happen, the impositions of the body that contains you and the breath within, and what the whirling chaos sweeps in from outside, so that the mind is freed from fate, brought to clarity, and lives life on its own recognizance – doing what’s right, accepting what happens, and speaking the truth…
  • To undertake nothing: at random or without a purpose; for any reason but the common good
  • There’s nothing more insufferable than people who boast about their own humility
  • Salvation: to see each thing for what it is – its nature and its purpose

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