The book Meditations is a collection of personal writings by Marcus Aurelius, who was the Roman Emperor between AD 161 to 180. His philosophical ideas belong to the school of Stoic philosophy.
I really enjoyed reading this book. His writings give me a sense of being unlimited and show me a way of thinking that could free me from feeling like I need to react to external events. It teaches me that I can live a more mature emotional life and gain more control of my reactions, no matter what is happening around me. He also inspires me to see the bigger picture, and not to be caught in my day-to-day thoughts and beliefs.
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What is Stoic philosophy?
A stoic person accepts whatever is happening and tries not to fall for one’s own emotions. This means to not yell, cry, or act out due to outer circumstances, but to be still within and just observe the world as it is.
Stoicism “…is a philosophy of life that maximizes positive emotions, reduces negative emotions and helps individuals to hone their virtues of character” (Holstee). The virtues that are valued are wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation.
Stoicism in Meditations
There are a lot of examples of stoicism in Marcus Aurelius’s writings.
Most prominently is the theme that goes through his many writings, that a person should always keep one’s calm, even if bad things are happening. And to not judge things as good or bad, for all that exists, and all that is happening is a part of the works of “Universal Nature”.
Citations of Stoic Philosophy
“Get rid of the judgement; you are rid of the ‘I am hurt’; get rid of the ‘I am hurt’, you are rid of the hurt itself.”
“Another does wrong. What is that to me? Let him look to it; he has his own disposition, his own activity. I have now what Universal Nature wills me to have, and I do what my own nature wills me to do.”
“For what comes to pass in the course of change nothing is evil, as nothing is good for what exists in consequence of change.”
“If you suffer pain because of some external cause, what troubles you is not the thing but your decision about it, and this it is in your power to wipe out at once. But if what pains you is something in your own disposition, who prevents you from correcting your judgment?”
“If it is not right, don’t do it: if it is not true, don’t say it. Let your impulse be to see always and entirely what precisely it is which is creating an impression in your imagination, and to open it up by dividing it into cause, matter, relation, and into the period within which it will be bound to have ceased.”
Marcus Aurelius lived in a time and culture where there was a strong belief in gods. And this is noticeable since he writes about gods, the universe and “Universal Nature” as he calls it. I wouldn’t say that he was religious though, but he had a clear sense of everything being a part of a whole, and that everything in the universe was one.
Citations of his spiritual beliefs:
“Constantly think of the Universe as one living creature, embracing one being and one soul; how all is absorbed into the one consciousness of this living creature; how it compasses all things with a single purpose, and how all things work together to cause all that comes to pass, and their wonderful web and texture.”
“You are a spirit bearing the weight of a dead body, as Epictetus used to say.”
“He who does not know the Universe exists does not know where he is. He who does not know the purpose of the Universe does not know who he is nor what the Universe is. He who fails in any one of these respects could not even declare the purpose of his own birth. What then do you imagine him to be, who shuns or pursues the praises of men who applaud, and yet do not know either where they are or who they are?”
It seems that Aurelius interprets things that happen (including bad things) as a part of Universal Nature’s plan. And that belief helps him keep his stoic attitude when dealing when hardship. Since bad things that happen do not happen to his fault or by anything he has done, he does not need to take it personally. Even even if it is clear that it is another man’s fault, he instead shows empathy and can see that another person‘s actions are a result of that person’s state of mind.
Now when I’ve read this book, I can see clearly how and why it has become one of the most famous and well-read philosophical books in the world. I honestly believe our world would be much better if everyone would follow his philosophy. So much of human suffering and pain comes from us reacting badly to outer circumstances, and judging others and ourselves in a non-empathic way. So many escalating conflicts could be avoided if we all just take a step back from each chaotic moment and saw the world from a bigger perspective.