Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations: Review

They kill, they cut in pieces, they hunt with curses. What relevance has this to keeping your mind pure, sane, sober, just? As if a man were to come up to a spring of clear, sweet water and curse it – it would still continue to bubble up water good to drink. He could throw it in mud or dung: in no time the spring will break it down, wash it away, and take no color from it. How then can you secure an everlasting spring and not a cistern? By keeping yourself at all times intent on freedom – and staying kind, simple, and decent. (8.51)

Are there more relevant words to our day and age of mass hysteria? Is there a more adamant admonition in this, the most terrible year of our lifetimes? And when I say “most terrible year,” it isn’t because of the actual events themselves. Rather, this year has been a crisis because of the abdication of responsibility by those in power, woh rule over an effete population. It’s been a trend for a while, but this is the year where the moral failings of our leadership and people are most acute.

With a “leadership” that fails to perform its basic functions and instead prefers graft and empty virtue signaling, with a panicked population that puts “safety” and hedonism above all else, you will get the results of this year. Lives of the Luminaries chapter 51 will talk about this in depth.

How are we to steel ourselves? It begins with yourself and the knowledge that your attributes and virtue can’t be taken away from you. “All your wealth is in yourself,” to quote the fabled Shipwreck of Simonides. This is the prime virtue of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

Marcus Aurelius was a man dealing with crises of his own. In a preview of centuries to come, there were repeat “barbarian” incursions into the Roman Empire during his reign (161-180), as well as a serious revolt in the east. The tide was turning. The Pax Romana was ending. To better deal with this, mentally, Marcus Aurelius, a philosopher in his own right, wrote the Meditations as a way to keep his own morale up. They weren’t intended for publication. This might be why the Meditations can get repetitive, but that need not be a bad thing.

Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations has important common themes among the 12 books:

  1. The innateness of virtue, the “directing mind,” and self-worth.
  2. The inevitability of death and why it is unmanly to fret about it.
  3. Why it is useless to get emotional about the actions or mental states of others.

The Directing Mind

We have met the Stoics before. Central to their doctrine was the idea that virtue was the highest good and that virtue was endowed by living in accordance with nature. The nature of man is his capacity to reason, hence we should live in alignment with that highest and best aspect of ourselves. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is in line with the Stoic tradition.

A bad man will always be bad, Marcus Aurelius tells us. What is that to us? Either we will try to educate him or he will revert to his character and we will be at an impasse. Either way, our own conduct remains the same.

Look at the quote above. The world will hit you in ways you didn’t expect. People will be bad. In our day and age in particular, bad actors will try to demoralize you. However, it is in your power to tune them out. Marcus Aurelius is adamant that the amount of power they have over you depends only on the amount of power that you judge them to have. They can kill, curse, and hunt you down, but your directing mind is still your own.

Within ten days you will be regarded as a god by those very people who now see you as beast or baboon – if you return to your principles and the worship of Reason. (4.16)

Be concerned with our own actions and virtue, not the nonsense you hear all the time. I’ve been talking about this for years, so it was nice to see Marcus Aurelius repeat it so many times in the Meditations.

The Inevitability of Death

He who fears death fears either unconsciousness or another sort of consciousness. Now if you will no longer be conscious you will not be conscious either of anything bad. If you are to take on a different consciousness, you will be a different being and life will not cease. (8.58)

The Meditations is full of Marcus Aurelius’ thinking about the subject of death. His own mortality didn’t frighten him. We will either pass on to our immortal souls or we will simply sleep as the tides of the universe continue to shift as they always have and always will. Worrying won’t stop this inevitable process.

Marcus Aurelius Meditations Review

The subject of our own mortality will always be a sensitive one. This sensitivity is worse in the modern era than it was during Marcus Aurelius’ own time. In pre-industrial societies, death was commonplace. Most people were farmers, so they slaughtered their own animals. Dead family members would be attended to at home. Infant mortality and childbirth death were much more common than they are today.

In our time, death has become something we rarely see. Most of us don’t farm anymore and source the food on our plates from faraway factories. Deaths of family members often occur in distant nursing homes (especially this year in certain states). We are insulated and so we begin to think ourselves immune, more than the typical youthful feeling of invincibility.

But we must nevertheless come to terms with the fact that we don’t have all the time in the world. We weren’t put on this planet to live forever in our physical bodies. The goal should be to live according to the best aspects of our nature and leave our names behind (even if Marcus Aurelius himself was wary of the drive for glory).

Living in constant fear of death will not permit you to live in accordance with the best aspects of your nature. We see the result of this all around us this year.

The Uselessness of Fretting About Others

When another blames you or hates you, or people voice similar criticisms, go to their souls, penetrate inside and see what sort of people they are. You will realize there is no need to be racked with anxiety that they should hold any particular opinion about you. But you should still be kind to them. They are by nature your friends, and the gods too help them in various ways – dreams and divination – at least to the objects of their concern. (9.27)

Many of the anxieties that rack us in our daily lives come from making constant judgment about the feelings of others. Marcus Aurelius constantly shows us in the Meditations that this is a silly and unmanly way to live your life. When you retreat into your own directing mind and live life in accordance with nature, such things are less important to you. Be the best man you can be. If people don’t like you, take the appropriate action and move on.

The Meditations is a great read, particularly if you’re a young person in the age of social media. With anxiety and even suicide on the rise because of social media gossip, and with lockdowns making these trends far worse, this admonition is even more important.

The Meditations should be required reading in high school. It always should have been, but now it’s even more important.

I recommend picking up a copy today. You can do that by going here.

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