You’ve probably heard about Meditations – one of Marcus Aurelius' most famous books, which he wrote as a source for his own guidance and self-improvement. I read the book only recently, and I will strive to emphasize the five most important insights that left a great impression on me.
Meditations is a series of personal writings by Marcus Aurelius, a Roman Emperor from AD 161 to 180, recording his private notes to himself and ideas on Stoic philosophy — from a tent.
In case you’re curious, Stoicism is a philosophy of personal eudaemonic virtue ethics informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world, asserting that the practice of virtue is both necessary and sufficient to achieve eudaimonia — the state or condition of ‘good spirit’ or, as we call it, happiness.
The Stoics are especially known for teaching that “virtue is the only good” for human beings, and those external things—such as health, wealth, and pleasure—are not good nor bad in themselves (adiaphora) but have value as “material for virtue to act upon.”
Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic, wrote the 12 books of the Meditations in Koine Greek as he was striving to be better, as a human being, and striving to reflect on the already taught Stoic values.
Here are five of the most remarkable insights he had (according to me, as a reader), on life, death, and self-improvement.
1. “Not to live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you. While you’re alive and able — be good.”
When you’re reading Meditations, you begin to notice how Marcus encourages living life to the fullest, without being lazy, without postponing decision-making, and striving to be the best version of yourself. “Be good” – while you’re still alive and able, he says, and do not expect credits for your kindness, or else it does not mean a thing.
2. “Let not future things disturb you, for you will come to them, if it shall be necessary, having with you the same reason which you now use for present things.”
Through these lines, Marcus advises us not to live in the future. According to him, really, the present is all we have because the past or the future do not exist. So we should not let ourselves become emerged by two times that do not even exist, and instead, we should strive to be as mindful as we can by enjoying the time we have now.
3. “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
Just like all stoics, Marcus Aurelius also believed that our well-being relies on our reasoning. He believed that we could remain calm and preserve our composure over pretty much anything. He would add that if external events can occur, without touching our peace of mind, we have become very powerful and we can remain intact by anything, as long as we keep training our minds to remain cool.
4. Tackling human’s fear of change – “Is any man afraid of change? What can take place without change? What then is more pleasing or more suitable to the universal nature? And canst thou take a bath unless the wood undergoes a change? And canst thou be nourished, unless the food undergoes a change? And can anything else that is useful be accomplished without change?”
For me, these lines were compelling, and they absolutely relate to all the times we fear making changes, changing habits, and breaking cycles. Marcus Aurelius looks at change, from the most clear-sighted perspective, and it makes you want to embrace change in the same way. Yes, he refers to ‘man’ as if ‘man’ represented all humankind. And as a feminist, I still struggle with this while reading ancient philosophers. But I’m doing my best to understand the times during which Marcus Aurelius lived.
5. “Let each thing you would do, say, or intend, be like that of a dying person. Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what’s left, and live it properly”
One other topic Marcus Aurelius, and all stoics basically, look at in a very natural way is death. Marcus’ meditations on death, remind us that we will soon be replaced, and others before us will be replaced too and that we ought not to waste our lives being distressed about death, as a cycle, as a process. However, Marcus proposes, that we can still reference death while we’re alive, and do good deeds every day, thinking that there may not be a tomorrow!
In case you’re still curious about stoicism, and you want to learn a thing or two about this philosophy, check out this amazing video I had encountered a while ago at the School of Life, on Stoicism:
Photo: Voar CC/Shutterstock
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