Marcus Aurelius hoped for a period of peace when he returned to Rome in 175 after spending much of his reign fighting wars and natural disasters. He secured the borders along the Rhine-Danube after spending most of three years in Carnuntum. A year later Marcus and his son returned to the Danube as hostilities flared once again. It was here, between the battles, where Marcus started writing reflections on life and how to live he titled To Himself. These writings later became Meditations.
Of all the Stoic writings from antiquity, Marcus speaks to me clearest. Whereas Seneca wrote letters which feel polished for publication and Epictetus gets preachy at times, Meditations has the comforting feel of a man reminding himself how to live an honest and good life. There was no need to impress the reader; the only reader would be Marcus himself. The honesty Marcus shared with the world is his greatest gift to humanity.
Start with Honor
Meditations is divided into 12 short books. The combined text reaches 99 pages in the copy I carry with me religiously. I find myself reading bits and pieces daily while reading the entire text from beginning to end slowly in an endless cycle. Because Marcus was writing to himself it feels like he is speaking to me, right to my face. With each passage I can’t help but think he was the greatest political leader to ever have lived.
In a time where emperors demanded the heads of any who would commit the smallest slight, Marcus was quick to forgive. His gentle soul made him loved by the people. History has called him the last of the Five Good Emperors. Rome was at her greatest when Marcus ruled.
The problems faced by Marcus daily are beyond anything I will ever experience in my life. In under 100 pages I can find guidance, warmth, and compassion for anything I am struggling with. Marcus had the power to crush his enemies and people who annoyed him. No one could hold him accountable if he did. Yet he chose to do the right thing, to live with honor and integrity. He is the kind of man most of us would follow into war.
As Marcus began writing to himself he started with a book of gratitude. The 12 books that comprise Meditations are untitled. In my mind the first book is called On Gratitude. He lists family, friends, and acquaintances that molded him into the person he became and thanked them all. In our time when politicians can’t wait to pat themselves on the back, Marcus began his self-reflection with a list of all the things he learned from others. He gave them credit.
The Unperfect Man
Marcus was the first to admit he still had much to learn. He was the first to admit he did not always live up to the standards he set for himself. That is why he started to write To Himself. Marcus was the epitome of a Stoic. He knew life was a journey filled with pitfalls. He accepted there would be times he would not live to his high moral standards. The measure of a man, to Marcus, was not perfection, but to strive constantly toward that end.
He had ample opportunities to hate or be angry. Marcus had a morning ritual where he would say to himself, “You will meet some really stupid and ignorant people today who will annoy you. Now that you know this, act honorable to all, including them.” Marcus reminded himself people would annoy him. Sometimes the slight was intentional, other times not. Regardless, Marcus, the most powerful man on Earth, reminded himself to use restraint, to let it go, to forgive and pardon.
That is what made Marcus the great leader he was. He was far from perfect and he acknowledged it. By acknowledging his imperfection, he was closer to the ideal man, the ideal Stoic, than any other. And then I ask: What is my excuse?
I am not perfect by any means. Business can drive me crazy at times. I am also my own worst critic. My ego is easily bruised when someone I admire gently rebukes something I say or do, even when it is obvious they said it to help me improve myself. This blog is my latest baby and something as petty as traffic can affect my ego. Ego is the enemy.
It is at moments like these when I pull out my copy of Meditations and remind myself, Marcus was a great man with much more on his plate than I’ll ever know, and he found a way to handle situations with integrity. If I were half the man he was I would be legend. I toil on.
The Running Man
For most of us we are either running from something or to something. After significant time in reflection I discovered I am running from something. Part of my writing on this blog is in the vein of my personal Meditations, knowing full-well there is a growing audience watching and forming opinions of me. It affects what I say. Why should I care what people think if I am honest in my confessions?
Your story is different. Your worldview, shaped by your lifetime of experiences, are different from mine. I can’t tell you what to do. I can suggest and no more. Self-discovery is of vital importance if you want to find happiness (as opposed to only pleasure).
During my impressionable years the family farm went through a wrenching bankruptcy. The extended struggle to preserve something so ingrained into the fabric of my family left an indelible scar. No matter how hard I try or how much I accomplish I always feel like a failure. I am running from my deepest fear, the fear I am not good enough. Deep down I know that is why I refuse to hang up my cleats and relax.
There are precious few people who find the answer. These people find a place where they are neither running to or from anything; they live life for what it is. These people are easy to identify. They are rarely driven to anger and quick to forgive. They sometimes offer a gentle nudge in the right direction, but allow you to make your own path. They are the Marcus Aurelius’ of our era.
Our Book of Gratitude
Like Marcus, we should write our own Meditations. Marcus was correct to start his reflections with a book of gratitude. Reminding ourselves of the people who shaped us is the most important step in growth. Family will dominate the early verses of our Meditations for most of us. When enough time is spent in quiet reflection you will discover, as I did, the vast list of people who made you who you are. And the list grows daily.
When I was a child I always looked up to older people. It felt natural. And I thought it would always be that way. In my mind the greatest age was the 40s. At family gatherings the people in their 40s seemed to have it so together. Now I am 52 and I still look up to people, except some are younger. As strange as it sounds, it still feels natural.
Learning is not confined to chosen peers. Ryan Holiday is a young guy with a fascinating life story. He is also a Stoic. I also learned more from him than I can list. Ryan is 29.
Younger people teach lessons we sometimes forget. When I watch young adults discovering life it helps me remember what life was like when I was younger. I think young people are awesome at seeing the wonder of the world. Age coupled with routine sometimes clouds the adventure of discovery.
Like Marcus, I am starting my own book of meditations. I will begin, as Marcus, with a book of gratitude. Unlike Marcus, the Meditations will never see publication. My meditations are personal and a reminder to me of how I should live life.
I invite you to start your Meditations. Your book, like mine and Marcus’, will be short. It will take years to write. Wayne Dyer said, “It is the silence between the notes that make the music…” It is the silence between the words that convey the message also. It takes years of quiet reflection to communicate a message to yourself. Unless alone, I have a hard time closing my yap. A personal Meditations might allow me to stop running. As I stand still I should experience a whole new world of wonder. I can only hope.
Meditations are never really finished. Each day we add a verse to our collected personal knowledge. On the last day, when the book is closed for the last time, there is a record on why we lived, on how we lived a good life to the best of our abilities. May whatever god there is smile on us.