Meditations is a collection of 12 books written by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who’ll introduce you to Stoic philosophy, the concept of logic, self-discipline and give you faith that the course the world runs is a good one.
If you’ve ever wondered what Bill Clinton’s favorite book is, now you know. Meditations by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was probably never meant to be published, but in 1558 someone at Heidelberg University in Germany decided that these 12 books full of wisdom were too valuable to remain hidden from the world – and printed them.
I’m a dreamer. A head-in-the-clouds kind of guy, always planning far ahead, making up grand schemes, not fretting much about what goes wrong today, always sure that things will play out well in the long run.
If you’re like me, then some ancient Greek stoicism, which Marcus Aurelius bases his writings on, will speak to you as well. Opposite to the Epicureans, who sought as much pleasure as they could in the here and now, for tomorrow they could die, the Stoics believed in the goodness of things, no matter how bad they were at any given time.
Here are 3 lessons from one of the greatest men who ever lived:
- Logic doesn’t always make sense, but everything happens fora reason.
- Life is too short to complain.
- The only pain you suffer is the one you create yourself.
Excited about stoicism? Let’s begin your training, young philosopher!
Lesson 1: Logic doesn’t always make sense, but everything happens for a reason.
The word logic as we use it today originally stems from ancient Greek. The word “logos” means “reason” and to the stoics, it was the force of life.
Logos gives everything its form and its order. It flows through every plant, every tree, every building and every human being. It is the essence of all life and the underlying master plan for everything that happens in the world. Therefore, every single thing that happens, whether good or bad, happens for a reason.
Things are exactly right as they are, which includes terrible things like terrorism, death and disease just as much as it includes wonderful things like rainbows, sunny days and long, fulfilled lives.
We’ve long deviated from this concept. To us, logic has become a much more mathematical concept.
1+1 = 2. That’s logic to us. But when a close family member unexpectedly dies, we don’t think that’s logical. It doesn’t make sense to us. It’s unfair, we get angry, we cry and resent the world.
Marcus Aurelius believed that everything happens for a reason. Always. Even in the worst of times, he took comfort in the fact that everything is exactly as it’s supposed to be.
Lesson 2: Life is too short to waste even a second complaining.
If everything is exactly right the way it is, complaining becomes utterly useless then, doesn’t it?
There’s a saying I like:
“For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
You could’ve spent those 60 seconds laughing. Talking. Breathing. Living. But you chose to complain to the person next to you in line at the cashier how hard life is. How much waiting at the grocery store sucks. And how stupid that employee is for making a mistake.
You never know how long you have. No one knows. You could get hit by a bus tomorrow, or never even wake up the next day. Your time on earth is limited. Incredibly limited. So don’t waste it.
Marcus Aurelius hated holding court, but he knew he shouldn’t spend even a second regretting his duties. Instead, he trusted in the grand scheme of things, knowing that logos had a plan for him, and right now his part in that plan was to let people waste his time with superficial arguments and small talk in court.
Complaining wastes your time and makes everyone that has to listen to it feel bad. So how about making it today’s mission to stop complaining?
Here’s some inspiration.
Lesson 3: The only pain you suffer is the one you inflict upon yourself.
Being an emperor in ancient Rome was a dangerous job. People tried to kill you, abduct you, stab you in the back and poison you at least once a week.
Marcus Aurelius believed that physical pain was part of logos’s big plan as well. He also suffered a lot of psychological pain in his lifetime. Out of his 13 children, 8 died before him, including his wife, who died at a very young age.
But he was convinced that all these things happen for good reason, trusted in the purpose, and thus remained calm even in the worst of times. After all, these deaths were external events that Marcus Aurelius had no hand in whatsoever.
He believed that any harm done to a person from an external source was beyond their control and therefore, couldn’t truly harm them. The suffering only starts if you allow it to, because you start blaming yourself, questioning why things happen, or complaining about how unfair everything is.
Whatever pain you’re facing, you have a choice. You can accept it and move on without complaining. Always.
So don’t make yourself suffer, it’s really all in your head.
My personal take-aways
Wow. For some of you this might all feel very abstract, but I can’t remember the last time I learned so much from a summary that’s this short (just 5 blinks). For books like these a Blinkist summary is the perfect intro, because it describes everything in plain words. As you can imagine, the original text is quite complicated.
Meditations is available for free online, but usually, professional translations by a publisher in paperback format will help you engage with the book more and digest its ideas better. I recommend the Dover Thrift Edition. I also tend to do better with heavier topics, like life, death, thinking, etc., when I have something in my hand that I can mark, leave comments on in pen, and so on.
If you’re new to stoicism, this is a must-read.
The Book in Three Sentences
Stoicism is as relevant today as it was when it was first recorded.
Serenity and ethical certainty come from within.
Detach from the things that are beyond your control and focus on your own will and perception.
The Five Big Ideas
Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.
You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.
Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.
It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.
Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me.”
“Stop allowing your mind to be a slave, to be jerked about by selfish impulses, to kick against fate and the present, and to mistrust the future.”
“At some point you have to recognize what world it is that you belong to; what power rules it and from what source you spring; that there is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.”
“Concentrate every minute like a Roman—like a man—on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can—if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable.”
“Do external things distract you? Then make time for yourself to learn something worthwhile; stop letting yourself be pulled in all directions.”
“People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward are wasting their time—even when hard at work.”
“Don’t ever forget these things: The nature of the world. My nature. How I relate to the world. What proportion of it I make up. That you are part of nature, and no one can prevent you from speaking and acting in harmony with it, always.”
“In comparing sins (the way people do) Theophrastus says that the ones committed out of desire are worse than the ones committed out of anger: which is good philosophy.”
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
“Nothing is more pathetic than people who run around in circles, ‘elving into the things that lie beneath’ and conducting investigations into the souls of the people around them, never realizing that all you have to do is to be attentive to the power inside you and worship it sincerely.”
“You cannot lose another life than the one you’re living now, or live another one than the one you’re losing.”
“You can’t lose either the past or the future; how could you lose what you don’t have?”
“The present is all that they can give up, since that is all you have, and what you do not have, you cannot lose.”
“Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people—unless it affects the common good. It will keep you from doing anything useful. You’ll be too preoccupied with what so-and-so is doing, and why, and what they’re saying, and what they’re thinking, and what they’re up to, and all the other things that throw you off and keep you from focusing on your own mind.”
“We should listen only to those whose lives conform to nature.”
“Never regard something as doing you good if it makes you betray a trust, or lose your sense of shame, or makes you show hatred, suspicion, ill will, or hypocrisy, or a desire for things best done behind closed doors.”
“Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see.”
“Nothing is so conducive to spiritual growth as this capacity for logical and accurate analysis of everything that happens to us.”
“If you do [a] job in a principled way, with diligence, energy and patience, if you keep yourself free of distractions, and keep the spirit inside you undamaged, as if you might have to give it back at any moment— If you can embrace this without fear or expectation—can find fulfilment in what you’re doing now, as Nature intended, and in superhuman truthfulness (every word, every utterance)—then your life will be happy. No one can prevent that.”
“Nowhere you can go is more peaceful—more free of interruptions—than your own soul.”
“The world is nothing but change. Our life is only perception.”
“Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed—and you haven’t been.”
“Every event is the right one. Look closely and you’ll see.”
“See not what your enemy sees and hopes that you will, but what’s really there.”
“Your conversion should always rest on a conviction that it’s right, or benefits others—nothing else.”
“Most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquillity. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’”
“Don’t give the small things more time than they deserve.”
“What happens to everyone—bad and good alike—is neither good nor bad.”
“Suppose that a god announced that you were going to die tomorrow ‘or the day after.’ Unless you were a complete coward you wouldn’t kick up a fuss about which day it was—what difference could it make? Now recognize that the difference between years from now and tomorrow is just as small.”
“It’s unfortunate that this has happened. No. It’s fortunate that this has happened and I’ve remained unharmed by it—not shattered by the present or frightened of the future. It could have happened to anyone. But not everyone could have remained unharmed by it. Why treat the one as a misfortune rather than the other as fortunate?”
“Remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.”
“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.”
“If the gods have made decisions about me and the things that happen to me, then they were good decisions. Why would they expend their energies on causing me harm? What good would it do them—or the world, which is their primary concern?”
“Whatever happens to you is for the good of the world.”
“When you need encouragement, think of the qualities the people around you have: this one’s energy, that one’s modesty, another’s generosity, and so on. Nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visibly embodied in the people around us, when we’re practically showered with them. It’s good to keep this in mind.”
“Remember that our efforts are subject to circumstances; you weren’t aiming to do the impossible. Aiming to do what, then? To try. And you succeeded. What you set out to do is accomplished.”
“Don’t be ashamed to need help. Like a soldier storming a wall, you have a mission to accomplish. And if you’ve been wounded and you need a comrade to pull you up? So what?”
“It doesn’t hurt me unless I interpret its happening as harmful to me. I can choose not to.”
“When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you’ll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them.”
“Treat what you don’t have as non-existent. Look at what you have, the things you value most, and think of how much you’d crave them if you didn’t have them. But be careful. Don’t feel such satisfaction that you start to overvalue them—that it would upset you to lose them.”
“Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option: to accept this event with humility to treat this person as he should be treated to approach this thought with care, so that nothing irrational creeps in.”
“Pain is neither unbearable nor unending, as long as you keep in mind its limits and don’t magnify them in your imagination.”
“You don’t need much to live happily. And just because you’ve abandoned your hopes of becoming a great thinker or scientist, don’t give up on attaining freedom, achieving humility, serving others, obeying God.”
“For every action, ask: How does it affect me? Could I change my mind about it?”
is in your control, why do you do it? If it’s in someone else’s, then who are you blaming? Atoms? The gods? Stupid either way.”
“Blame no one. Set people straight, if you can. If not, just repair the damage.”
With the body you inhabit
With the divine, the cause of everything in all things
With the people around you
“Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, ‘Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?’ You’ll be embarrassed to answer.”
“External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now.”
“If the problem is something in your own character, who’s stopping you from setting your mind straight? And if it’s that you’re not doing something you think you should be, why not just do it?”
“The existence of evil does not harm the world. And an individual act of evil does not harm the victim. Only one person is harmed by it—and he can stop being harmed as soon as he decides to.”
“Everything that happens is either endurable or not. If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining. If it’s unendurable … then stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well. Just remember: you can endure anything your mind can make endurable, by treating it as in your interest to do so. In your interest, or in your nature.”
“If they’ve made a mistake, correct them gently and show them where they went wrong. If you can’t do that, then the blame lies with you. Or no one.”
“Characteristics of the rational soul: Self-perception, self-examination, and the power to make of itself whatever it wants.”
Four habits of thought to watch for, and erase from your mind when you catch them.
Tell yourself: This thought is unnecessary
This one is destructive to the people around you
This wouldn’t be what you really think (to say what you don’t think—the definition of absurdity)
And the fourth reason for self-reproach: that the more divine part of you has been beaten and subdued by the degraded mortal part—the body and its stupid self-indulgence
“Everything you’re trying to reach—by taking the long way round—you could have right now, this moment. If you’d only stop thwarting your own attempts. If you’d only let go of the past, entrust the future to Providence, and guide the present toward reverence and justice.”
“Don’t let anything deter you: other people’s misbehavior, your own mis-perceptions, What People Will Say, or the feelings of the body that covers you (let the affected part take care of those). And if, when it’s time to depart, you shunt everything aside except your mind and the divinity within … if it isn’t ceasing to live that you’re afraid of but never beginning to live properly … then you’ll be worthy of the world that made you.”
If you like Meditations, you may also enjoy the following books:
A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine
Ego Is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday
The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph by Ryan Holiday
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