Meditations is an afternoon conversation with a ruler of the Roman Empire: intimate, ethical, and full of wisdom.
Timeless is another adjective to describe this translated compendium of the thoughts of Marcus Aurelius. Gregory Hays, associate professor of classics at the University of Virginia, translated the delivered writings of Aurelius in the most concise, clear manner available without diluting its original tone. Hays recommends that the reader familiarizes themself not only with Stoicism but also with the underlying role of philosophy in ancient life. While Meditations isn’t really a meditation per se, I found myself in agreement with Hays. Aurelius created his works throughout the course of his life. It’s nearly perfectly detached from historical events. And it overwhelmingly omits names and locations of Aurelius’ present time. Grasping the full context almost mandates an ancient philosophy deep dive as a prerequisite to reading Meditations.
From the beginning, it becomes clear that Aurelius’ main theme revolves around: (1) the present moment and (2) death. These two main themes reoccur more often than others which gives Meditations a melancholy with urgency. It is almost as if Aurelius saw human suffering, experienced pain for himself, and took to the paper to find the means to cope with it. Hays writes in his introduction on the book of Marcus:
“If you desire to master pain
Unroll this book and read with care,
And in it find abundantly
A knowledge of the things that are,
Those that have been, and those to come.
And know as well that joy and grief
Are nothing more than empty smoke.”
Philosophy is art. Perhaps you can classify it as an art of life. This makes it futile to investigate patterns or factual statements. For it is up to the reader to interpret and extrapolate meaning. Meditations does that like no other book I’ve read recently. Its concise, to-the-point paragraphs offer a situation, an interpretation, and a solution. For example
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”—Book 2.11
These two sentences convey a powerful urgency hard to emulate with inspirational, motivational, or modern hustle-porn content. Yet it was written 200 decades ago. It makes me want to drop writing this post and return to the important things in my life. But Aurelius doesn’t stop at mere urgency. He connects it with the interpretation of time and that we, as humans, are often overly obsessed with what was or what will be despite having zero power over either. In his words:
“Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see. The span we live is small–small as the corner of the earth in which we live it. Small as even the greatest renown, passed from mouth to mouth by short-lived stick figures, ignorant alike of themselves and those long dead.”—Book 3.10
As we live our lives in our corners, I often observe the indescribable urge to compare with others of similar lifestyles, circumstances, and heritage. It’s a natural urge and nothing worthy to suppress, but the act of comparing is the thief of joy. Aurelius learned this throughout his life and condensed it into:
“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.”—Book 5.16
It’s a call to set your mind free from comparison or worry about what others may think. It directly ties back into his two main themes: the present moment and death. Lastly, I found this short list of remembrance to be powerful and worthy to mention here, so I can come back and reread it when I need to have clarity in life:
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.”