Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Meditations is a series of writings by Roman Emperor and philosopher king Marcus Aurelius (famously portrayed by the incomparable Richard Harris in Gladiator). Essentially his nightly diary, Meditations is an incredibly introspective look into both his personal and political lives. Through his relationships with colleagues, subjects, family, friends, and teachers, we see an honest, humble depiction of the often mythic Aurelius: he was a simple man, a lifelong learner, and a Stoic who just so happened to be the leader of the entire Western world.

These private notes–never meant for publication–are mostly centered on the Stoic philosophy (made famous by Socrates), which sees happiness as the acceptance of every moment as it happens. The goal of a Stoic is to stop being ruled by his/her desire for pleasure and fear of pain. It is about treating others fairly and working together in pursuit of justice.

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

We’re privy to his thoughts on religion, spirituality, and the afterlife. We learn about respect, forgiveness, patience, chastity, diligence, abstinence, and much, much more. As a result of his moral courage, he died one of the most respected Emperors in history. In fact, he was so influential that his death is considered the end of Pax Romana (the time of peace and minimal expansion for the Romans) and the beginning of the end of the Empire.

In a nutshell, Meditations is extraordinary. Surely, it’s one of the wisest texts I’ve read. It will be a bedside companion for years to come (and a staple audiobook on my phone, to boot).

“When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love …”

I highly recommend the audiobook version. Narrated by Duncan Steen (click to sample), Aurelius’ often bite-sized wisdoms are like honey in your ears. They were perfect in short bursts, either as positive affirmations first thing in the morning or as things to ponder before falling asleep. No question, it is one of the better audio experiences I’ve had. It’s one I will be coming back to again and again. At just five hours long, it’s easily digestible.

Steen’s performance makes Aurelius feel like the wise, patient mentor I never had, but always wanted. I would regularly contemplate a small section over the course of an entire day, reflecting on what I’ve done, how I handled it, and what I could have done better. It’s given me plenty to chew on, on several occasions.

I turned 34 back in March, and age is definitely starting to affect me on an emotional level (in addition to the painfully obvious physical ramifications). Aurelius’ words have definitely helped, and I hope they’ll continue to help as I get older still, and suffer through physical and existential breakdowns crises. They’re coming like freight trains.

I can already hear them.

“The time is at hand when you will have forgotten everything; and the time is at hand when all will have forgotten you. Always reflect that soon you will be no one, and nowhere.”

Crown

The book is divided into twelve sections, each with its own theme. Conveniently (for the audiobook version), my favorite is Book 1. It is a collection of lessons he’s learned from specific people, either by direct teaching or, more often, by their actions.

From Rusticus I received the impression that my character required improvement and discipline; and from him I learned not to be led astray to sophistic emulation, nor to writing on speculative matters, nor to delivering little hortatory orations, nor to showing myself off as a man who practises much discipline, or does benevolent acts in order to make a display; and to abstain from rhetoric, and poetry, and fine writing; and not to walk about in the house in my outdoor dress, nor to do other things of the kind; and to write my letters with simplicity, like the letter which Rusticus wrote from Sinuessa to my mother; and with respect to those who have offended me by words, or done me wrong, to be easily disposed to be pacified and reconciled, as soon as they have shown a readiness to be reconciled; and to read carefully, and not to be satisfied with a superficial understanding of a book; nor hastily to give my assent to those who talk overmuch; and I am indebted to him for being acquainted with the discourses of Epictetus, which he communicated to me out of his own collection.

I love that Rusticus gave him permission to “not to walk about in the house in my outdoor dress.” If I ever needed external validation for dressing like a comfy slob at home, this is it.

Jogging pants affirmations aside, it’s clear that Aurelius was an incredibly grateful person. It’s a quality I’m always trying to practice, so here I go.

From Adam at Roofbeam Reader I learned to get over my hangups as a blogger. He showed me that success is not defined by followers or page counts (despite the fact that he seems to have both), but by the quality of the work. Because that’s what it is: work. The term “Book Blog” need not be a pejorative; sophistication not only exists in our little sphere, but it’s celebrated. Our goal should be to create whatever it is we feel the need to create. The audience, if there is to be one, will come (if it wills).

From my father I learned that we are not who we are today. We can always grow, and learn, and change, and transcend the very worst versions of ourselves. We are never finished. Happiness isn’t anything you can brag about (because he’s tried); instead, it’s usually only what you can feel: contentment, love, laughter. It’s also the joy in handing out fireball whiskey like it’s a fine scotch even though teenage girls get wasted on it. In him I see someone who didn’t feel sorry for himself. He just got better.

From Naomi at Consumed by Ink I learned that Atlantic Canada deserves a lot less of my scorn and a lot more of my praise. Terrible covers can, indeed, disguise terrific books. Every bad reading experience can be forgotten by just getting back on the horse. The cure for reader’s block is, simply, not reading shit and reading something good instead.

From my friend Iain I have learned that truly like-minded people do exist, and that being a laugh-happy sporty nerd who writes and likes Batman and Dostoevsky is a blessing, not a curse. He taught me the value of having one person who can be anything you need at any given moment. That we can be gay, just not sexual, and say that to my wife’s face. Find at least one person you truly love who isn’t your family or your significant other. It means the world some days. If this person sends you great Instagrams, even better.

From my mother I learned true unconditional love. If, as Stephen Chbosky asserts, we only accept the love we think we deserve, then my mother allowed me to accept all the love the world could possibly give me, and all the love I could give myself in return. I love who I am and it’s all because of her. She let me be whoever I wanted to be, and loved whatever came as a result. I can only hope to do the same for others.

From Laura at Reading-in-Bed I learned that hyphens in URLs are not, as I thought, blog killers. I have learned that we are not beholden to our blog’s name, either. We are the masters of our own destiny, and if we want to stop reading the 1001 Books to Read Before We Die, then we can. She’s taught me that classics can be fun, and that snark is almost never misplaced if it’s funny. If it is misplaced, who cares; we do this for free. She’s been my cheerleader, my disciplinarian, my coach, and the classmate who makes me better.

In Kirt and Tania at WriteReads I found well-read friends who are also gigantic nerds. They showed me that if you want something, just go do it. Even if you have to do it in the sweltering heat in mid-July, with potentially shoddy equipment. I now know that less can most certainly be more, and the more time you dedicate to a book the more you’re going to get out of it.

From Juliana at Wild Places (et al) I learned that quantity does not mean quality. Blogging will always foster quantity over quality, but she’s shown me that it’s so much better to have one thing that’s beautiful than five things that are forgettable. I’ve learned that this whole thing should be about who I am and who I am becoming, that slow and steady wins the race. To read carefully, with intent, and as widely as possible.

From Carolyn at Rosemary and Reading Glasses I learned that poetry isn’t dead and that I actually love some of it, that you can be smart without being a snob, and that if you are smart then people will naturally pick up on it. Blogging will always be here when we need it, which gives us the ability to go off and do different things, exciting things, things that have nothing to do with books and sometimes everything to do with them. Either way, just be happy.

And finally, from my wife I learned patience, perseverance, humility, and dedication, and that laughter is usually the best medicine but often it’s just lying next to the person you love. She taught me the value of taking chances, of risking everything, and when I fail that doesn’t change a thing. In the last five years, she has taught me more about myself and the world around me than I learned in the nearly 30 years before that. She made me curious, open minded, experimental, and courageous, and she ‘s cool with me dedicating an entire room of my house to my books, which means she’s a keeper.

Final Thoughts header

Goodreads Rating: five stars

Some of My Favourite Quotes: 

  • “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”
  • “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
  • “The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.”
  • “Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?”
  • “How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.”
  • “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
  • “I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.”

For Your Information: One of Russell Crowe’s most famous lines from Gladiator, “What we do now echoes in eternity,” was actually taken, verbatim, from Meditations. However, it makes sense, since Crowe’s Maximus was very close with Marcus Aurelius in the film and he’s likely just echoing something Aurelius taught him.

Why Meditations is Worth Reading: How many other ways do you have to get reliably wiser, at will, with about 30 seconds of effort?

9 thoughts on “Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

  1. This is awesome. I just picked this up for a reread, and I was struck by how much I liked the first book. I don’t remember responding to that one so much the first time. I was listening to this on audio (although a different narrator, not as good) and started doing the same thing in the car — thinking about all the things I’m grateful to know, and the people who’ve taught them to me. Thank you for including me on this list. You definitely have a spot on my list, too.

    One of my favorite things about this book is that it’s basically a highly-revered, all-powerful emperor having an identity crisis. I find that comforting. 🙂

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  2. I’m glad you read this before me, and said so many beautiful things about it, because my take would probably just be a bunch of Gladiator gifs. You showed a lot more restraint. There are a bunch of audio versions of this at the library, but not the same narrator, so maybe I’ll have to bite the bullet and sign up for Audible!

    And thanks for the kind words, “who cares,” while somehow still caring a lot, is definitely the vibe I’m going for 🙂 You taught me about reinvention, among other things!

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  3. Hi Rick, happy to have found your blog, and love this post. I remember reading this wayyyy back when. We can learn so much from his ‘Meditations’. Which now makes me want to go find a copy.

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  4. I already bought a book on the meditations, which will give me advice for the good life. Also, from what I learned from Marcus Annius Aurelius I’m now a Stoic, and we should strive to help other people, although temperance would be a good idea. Oh yeah, and I’m getting a white toga soon!

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