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A Week’s Worth of Meditations to Help Prepare to Read Marcus Aurelius

A Week’s Worth of Meditations to Help Prepare to Read Marcus Aurelius

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February 23, 2024

Thanks to Chad Greene, a 2023 Fellowship in Ideas recipient, for today’s blog.

“There is nothing new: all things are both familiar and short-lived,” the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius Antoninus wrote more than 1,800 years ago in the text that we tend to title the Meditations (VII.1). Marcus Aurelius did not give them this title; he merely referred to them by a Greek term that translates to “things to one’s self.” So, when Marcus Aurelius created this collection of short texts, traditionally divided into twelve books, it was meant for an audience of one: Marcus Aurelius.

However, the appeal of the Meditations has proved to be anything but “short-lived,” and they have found a much larger audience – especially in these past ten years. Although it is true that Stoicism “is nothing new,” as the school of philosophy was founded by Zeno of Citium in the third century BCE, since the publication of Ryan Holiday’s best-selling book The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumphs in 2014, it has become much more “familiar” to many modern Americans. More authors and more books have continued that recent trend, including Massimo Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life in 2017 and Donald Robertson’s How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius in 2019. (Those who have read my comics-centered earlier entries in the HMU Blog probably suspect that I also own a copy of Verissimus, the graphic novelization of the life of Marcus Aurelius that Robertson and his artistic collaborator Zé Nuno Fraga published in 2022. And, indeed, I do.)

When I teach my “Masterpieces of World Literature” class at community college, though, it is the Meditations themselves that I assign my students to read. Any Great Book written in ancient times can contain considerable challenges for modern readers, but – through my work with my students – I have realized that there are two particular challenges associated with reading the Meditations. The first of those challenges is that, because Marcus Aurelius wrote the Meditations for himself, he neither explains the basics of Stoicism nor defines the important terms. The second is that it is a seemingly unorganized collection of … well, Meditations. Each of these short texts was simply what Marcus Aurelius chose to meditate about on a given day as he struggled to live a life of virtue as a Stoic.

That said, the Meditations actually contains much of the information one needs to develop an understanding of the basics of Stoicism; it just needs to be put into an order that makes sense. 

Although Marcus Aurelius encourages himself to “read carefully, and not be satisfied with a superficial understanding of a book,” for this blog, I have selected only seven quotations from his Meditations to help modern readers overcome those two challenges associated with reading them. I have selected this week’s worth of meditations from throughout Marcus Aurelius’s celebrated collection specifically to sketch out the basics of his philosophy. Each of these communicates a crucial concept related to Stoicism.

Day One – Nature and Reason

The telos – the ultimate aim – of Stoics is to live according to nature, which they believe is governed by reason. Marcus Aurelius expresses this in VI.58:

“No man will hinder you from living according to the reason of your own nature: nothing will happen to you contrary to the reason of the universal nature.”

Day Two – Change

One of the most crucial characteristics of nature for a Stoic to accept is the constancy of change. Marcus Aurelius expresses this in XII.21:

“Consider that before long you will be nobody and nowhere, nor will any of the things exist that you now see, nor any of those who are now living. For all things are formed by nature to change and be turned and to perish in order that other things in continuous succession may exist.”

Day Three – Death

Stoicism teaches that death is not to be feared, as it is merely a form of the continuous change that characterizes nature. Marcus Aurelius expresses this in II.17:

“[F]inally, waiting for death with a cheerful mind, as being nothing else than a dissolution of the elements of which every living being is compounded. But if there is no harm to the elements themselves in each continually changing into another, why should a man have an apprehension about the change and dissolution of all the elements? For it is according to nature, and nothing is evil that is according to nature.”

Day Four – Life Until Death

Once Stoics accept that death is simply part of nature, their next “inquiry” is to discover how to best live the rest of their lives. Their answer to this question is to be good. Marcus Aurelius expresses this in IV.17:

“Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.”

Day Five – Good and Virtue

Stoicism teaches that the only true good in life is virtue. Marcus Aurelius lists the types of thoughts, words, and – most importantly – actions that characterize a virtuous life for a Stoic in IV.33:

“What then is that about which we ought to imply our serious pains? This one thing, just thoughts, and social acts, and words that never lie, and a disposition that gladly accepts all that happens as necessary, as usual, as flowing from a principle and source of the same kind.”

Day Six – Control

Because Stoics accept that much of what happens to us in life is not in our control, their conception of how to live a life a virtue places much emphasis on recognizing what is in their control. Marcus Aurelius meditates on what “is in your power” in VII.2:

“How can our principles become dead unless the impressions (thoughts) that correspond to them are extinguished? But it is in your power continuously to fan these thoughts into a flame. I can form the opinion that I ought to have about anything. If I am able to do so, why am I disturbed? The things that are external to my mind have no relation at all to my mind. Let this be the state of your affects, and you will stand erect. To recover your life is in your power. Look at things again as you used to look at them; for in this consists the recovery of your life.”

Day Seven – Opinions and Judgments

Because Stoics believe that they are not in control of the things that happen to them, but that they are in control of the opinions or judgments they form about those things, learning to control their responses to external things is one of their keys to living a happy life. Marcus Aurelius expresses this in VIII.47:

“If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.”

Read in this order, these seven meditations can help you to develop an understanding of the basics of the Stoicism that Marcus Aurelius is attempting to practice as well as of important terms associated with it.

One last quotation, though, will hopefully help to put you in the right mindset for reading the Meditations. In VI.53, Marcus Aurelius reminds himself to “Accustom yourself to attend carefully to what is said by another, and as much as it is possible, try to inhabit the speaker’s mind.” When reading the Meditations, it is helpful to try to inhabit Marcus Aurelius’s mind – that is, to attempt to empathize with him as he struggles to live a life of virtue in turbulent times.

Quite honestly, that is a struggle that many of us can relate to in the strange and stressful situations created by our current circumstances.

Images: Courtesy of Chad Greene

1 thought on “A Week’s Worth of Meditations to Help Prepare to Read Marcus Aurelius”

  1. I just bought this book. “Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and Julius A. Klein” to help me manage situations that are not in my control. How to respond to thing that you’re not able to control.

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