Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations: The Handbook to Being a Human Being
Like many an American male, I’m a product of pop culture. Nothing wrong with that, necessarily. But the detached irony, the constant need to be entertained, the attraction towards the intellectually easily-digestable needs a corrective—an anti-leavening agent, if you will. Well, I found just such an anti-leavening agent in the writings of a Roman emperor, of all people.
Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations was perhaps the first self-help book ever written. It’s a self-help book in the truest sense: for it was written not to be widely disseminated, but solely as a private reminder to live virtuously and maintain an even keel through turbulent existential waters. Thus its very personal tone.
How ridiculous and what a stranger he is who is surprised at anything which happens in life.
Here’s a spoonful of what you’ll find in the book: “Within ten days you will seem a god to those to whom you are now a beast and an ape, if you will return to your principles and the worship of reason.” An old-fashioned call to virtue, yes, but also a frank confession of the mixed-baggedness of the human race.
Meditations is the book amongst the ancient classics that best translates to our current condition. Very little about it strikes one as outdated or strange or overly esoteric. Perhaps that’s because Aurelius’s position as emperor, with its plethora of responsibilities and pressures, mirrors the complicated lives of us moderns.
Our situation may in fact be even more perplexing than his because, added to the numerous hoops we have to jump through daily, we’re faced with a neuroses-inducing media environment that makes cultivating inner calm quite, quite hard. The Meditations is a balm to all this:
Retire into yourself. The rational principle which rules has this nature, that it is content with itself when it does what is just, and so secures tranquility. Wipe out the imagination. Stop the pulling of the strings. Confine yourself to the present… Let the wrong which is done by another stay there where the wrong was done.
Shock and righteous indignation have no place in Aurelius’s philosophy, and there’s a bracing absence of judgmentalism there that we would do well to imitate, whether it’s in our reactions to events in our personal lives or to the headlines in the scandal-ridden and corpse-strewn news:
When you are offended with any person’s shameless conduct, immediately ask yourself, Is it possible, then, that shameless people should not be in the world? It is not possible. Do not, then, require what is impossible… If a person is mistaken, instruct him kindly and show him his error. But if you are not able, blame yourself, or blame not even yourself.
I grew up in a Christian household, and my young, overly-sensitive self felt the burden of Christian guilt and fear of hellfire a bit too strongly. The constant harping on sin and its companion, redemption, really did a number on me.
So when I encountered the wisdom of the classical world, it felt like a fresh, cool breeze had whooshed through my soul. The ancient Greeks (and their later imitators, the Romans) cultivated a sober recognition of human nature at odds with the fiery passion of the Middle Eastern prophets.
Somehow, I just couldn’t picture Moses or Jesus or Mohammed saying what Marcus Aurelius does: “How ridiculous and what a stranger he is who is surprised at anything which happens in life.”
Conversely, there is a tantalizingly Far Eastern flavor to the Meditations. There are those who never tire of pointing out that a great philosophical and spiritual gap exists between the East and West—but the Meditations is proof that this assertion is at least partially incorrect. At times, Marcus Aurelius sounds like Buddha or Laozi:
Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are the cooperating causes of all things which exist.
Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic. Stoics sometimes get a bad rap because they stressed a detachment from the world and a kind of cold resignation to life that some people find depressing.
And I can see where they’re coming from. The Meditations is definitely not the book to turn to if you’re experiencing a deep, deadening spell of depression: its occasional reminders of the ultimate pointlessness of all things may not be the message you need to hear at the moment.
Rather, it’s the book to turn to if you’re over-anxious, over-sensitive, if you’re feeling like un pollo with its cabeza cut off, if you’re wrestling with the eternal questions which only death can answer:
Either all things proceed from one intelligent source and come together as in one body, and the part ought not to find fault with what is done for the benefit of the whole; or there are only atoms, and nothing else than mixture and dispersion. Why, then, are you disturbed?
In other words, if there is a God, you are part of His grand plan. And if there isn’t a God, then what does it matter? You may find such an idea depressing—but I find it freeing.