Marcus Aurelius on Finding Peace

The Meditations is a master work on finding peace amidst the chaos of life.

I discovered it a few years ago on Ryan Holiday’s list of Books to Base Your Life On.  For me, it was one of those books I find once every few years that fundamentally shifts my view of life, and has remained one of the best manuals on living I’ve ever read.

Finding Peace in the Chaos of Life

Bookstores today are full of “quick fix” self-help books, promising happiness and wealth with an easy to use five point system. Most of these self-help books are worthless.  They contain recycled ideas processed repackaged with a shiny cover and are made for a quick buck.  This is why Nassim Taleb recommends reading no books written in the last twenty years (aside from history books), as not enough time has passed to allow them to demonstrate their value.

The advice and insights of the Meditations has survived for over 2,000 years now.  It’s here to stay, and with good reason.

Stoicism and Marcus Aurelius

Stoic philosophy grew and developed through five hundred years of Greco-Roman history. The philosophy emphasizes finding mental peace and ethical direction in the midst of life’s chaos, unpredictability, and cruelty.  Stoics found that the solution to the mental and spiritual turmoil that we so often experience in life was to focus on the things in your control and to stop wrestling with the things out of your control.  According to the Stoics, events are neither good nor bad, but our reactions to those events may be good or bad.  Our experience is, therefore, dictated by the sum of our reactions to the events of our life.

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius was influenced by the Stoic teachers in Rome during his life, including Epictetus.  Drawing on Epictetus’s teachings, Aurelius wrote the Meditations in the second century C.E. while engaged in war with the German tribes to the Empire’s North.  He originally intended the text to be merely a series of private reflections, his personal diary.

The value of the Meditations lies in its ability to calmly stare deeply into and confront the immutable difficulties of life and the human condition.  From that perspective, it teaches that virtue, not pleasure, is the key to fulfillment and peace.

Lessons from the Meditations

Remember Your Purpose Daily

Aurelius begins Book II of the Meditations with a reminder to start each day by rehearsing your response to negative moments.

Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial.  All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil.  But I, who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly…I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly….

This one really works.

Practice Mindfulness

Keeping in line with the Stoic focus on things in our control, Aurelius reminds you to watch your own mind carefully, not the thoughts of others.

Failure to observe what is in the mind of another has seldom made a man unhappy; but those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy.

Focus on the Present Moment

Even if you were going to live three thousand years, and even ten thousand times that, still remember that no man loses any other life than this which he now lives, nor lives any other than this which he now loses.  The longest and shortest are thus brought to the same . . . For the present is the only thing of which a man can be deprived. . . .

It is always now.  Each of us has the present, nothing more, nothing less.

Take Action Now

Remember how long you have been putting off these things, and how often you have received an opportunity from the gods, and yet do not use it.  You must now at last perceive of what universe you are a part, …and that a limit of time is fixed for you, which if you do not use for clearing away the clouds from your mind, it will go and you will go, and it will never return.

You have the present moment.  Don’t waste it.

How to Read the Meditations

One of the best things about the Meditations is that you don’t have to read it cover to cover. It’s short, so you could certainly do so.  That’s how I read it the first time.  But now that I’ve read it a few times, I find that it is most valuable to me when I pick it up and read just a page or two at random.  There’s always a new insight to find and think about.  It’s in my briefcase about half the time for exactly this reason.

Pair this with Epictetus and Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life.


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