Why is Stoicism suddenly mainstream? I wouldn’t have imagined that in 2018, ancient philosophies would become more relevant. I decided to put some books on Stoicism on my reading list. I was curious to see what all the hype was about. This is the first book that introduced me to Stoicism.
(Stoicism translates to Stoa or “porch”, which is where the founder — Zeno — taught and lectured in downtown Athens.)
There are some criticisms of Stoicism. One is that “it’s a philosophy for a post-democratic time. That’s not the world we live in today. We have democracy. We have freedom. We don’t need a philosophy that teaches us to resist pain or suffering.”
I think we do. We need it now more than ever. We need a practical philosophy to help us curtail our greedy desires and provoke us to rethink our values and the way we spend our time
It’s easy to assume — with all the technology we have access to — that we have it all figured out. That our priorities are in order and that we’re focused on the right things. Nothing can be further from the truth. Our world leaders provoke — and partake in — pedantic bickering with their own citizens around topics that don’t matter.
People are entirely focused on the outside. On outrage and disgust and anger. It’s overwhelming. Reading the back and forth that goes on between people on Twitter or Facebook always makes me wonder where we’ve gone astray.
No Character Culture
Few people I know can be described as straight shooters, principled, and resolute in their convictions. The no non-sense Clint Eastwood archetype isn’t being sought after today. I learned of a fabled time when people valued character building. I didn’t live in such a time and don’t think ever will.
Today, everyone seems to be attracted to drama, flash, charisma, novelty, and style. What people enjoy talking about is mind-numbing. Political squabbles, which Kardashian got married, what CNN decided to label as “breaking news” on any given day, and who really is the greatest ever in every single sport. (Who’s the greatest ever? You’ll never know, and you can’t possibly know because there’s no way of making a fair comparison. But everyone wants to spend 20% of their lives trying anyway)
On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with any of that. On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with anything. But when the vast majority of people spend the little idle time they have worrying about useless details about things that make no difference to their lives or the lives of others (positively), you have to think something is wrong.
But maybe it’s always been this way. Since the first man accused the first woman of ruining his life, there have been “the masses” and the few that did something valuable with their time. I always felt somewhere in between. But the older I get the more repulsed I feel by the former category. The more isolated I am from those around me, indeed, from those everywhere. Which is why reading “Meditations” was like reading something you have forgotten, have chosen to ignore, but are grateful to be reminded of once again.
I keep a journal and I remind myself every day of the things I need to watch for in myself. I take my self-awareness very seriously. I remind myself of the things I believe in. Why they’re most important. When you journal, you’re 100 percent honest. You have no reservations, you’re free, in a way that very few people are in real life. That’s what I really enjoyed about Meditations. This wasn’t someone trying to push an ideological system or sell anything to me. It was just one man’s thoughts about life — his life — and it was impossible to read it without somehow hanging on every word and taking note. The fact that Aurelius himself would be horrified if he ever found out that his scribbles would become known as one of the great books of our time made the experience strangely honest and intimate.
Philosophy was central to the Roman way of life, and in ancient times, it wasn’t reserved to select few professors in Academia. Philosophy was how people lived their lives. Religion, for them, was ritualistic, and not a moral guide. It didn’t need to be. Studying philosophical schools such as stoicism gave them insight into what’s meaningful, what should be pursued, how to deal with death and mortality, and how to treat their neighbors.
Marcus Aurelius was a well-educated Roman emperor who ruled from 161–180 AD. He was tutored by several philosophers and spent a considerable amount of time honing his rhetorical skills before diving deep into philosophy. Ancient Romans and Marcus Aurelius himself were heavily influenced by Stoicism. He recorded his thoughts in a book. That book is called “Meditations”. It wasn’t really a diary. He wasn’t talking about what he did on any particular day or of encounters he’d have with people. It’s more of a philosophical memoir. More precisely, it was his way of meditating. The book contains pearls of wisdom scattered -surprisingly frequently — in between random sentences that translate to obsessive, repetitive mantras.
It felt like Aurelius was in possession of certain truths that he firmly held and kept reminding himself of them. He did so with frustration, self-degradation, and anger. It’s hard for people in this age to not think of his ideas as being too extreme. But what I found amazing was how little life felt back then to how it does now. The brief but rich sentences he used to express his thoughts on these topics were surprisingly insightful.
I read that Aurelius was the quintessential Stoic. I don’t know enough about Stoicism to verify that statement, but I’ll keep it in mind as I move forward in this journey.
One last thing about this book before I go on. It’s not a happy book. If you’re looking for ways to experience positive emotions there’s a lot of psychological literature on that. I won’t vouch for any of it though. This is a book for dealing with pain, sadness, and the inevitable truths of life. It’s a system of thought that helps us use our reason to tear apart our anxieties, fears, and irrational attachments.
I’m going to touch on a few of the themes that appeared through “Meditations”. And some sentences that I hand-picked to convey the essence of Marcus Aurelius’ philosophy.
You can find more precise definitions elsewhere, but I understood it to be something like a hybrid between the deterministic laws of nature and our own rationality. And because of its existence, there’s no reason to be angry at evil or people who commit acts of evil. It’s all part of the intricate structure of the universe. Whatever exists — good or evil — has a reason to exist. Free will is an illusion. And like a dog tied to a moving wagon, we can rebel against the logos but we’re going to be moving whether we like it or not. The Logos has also given us the ability to discern right from wrong, the righteous from the evil, and it’s our responsibility to properly respond to our rational conclusions.
Everyone gets one life. Yours is almost used up, and instead of treating yourself with respect, you have entrusted your own happiness to the souls of others.
Aurelius, like all of us, was probably dragged around by others trying to take advantage of him. If you’ve ever met a sleazy salesman, had a relationship with a false friend, or a treacherous person of any kind trying to swindle you by stealing your time, attention, and trust, then you can relate to his sentiment here.
Look at who they really are, the people whose approval you long for, and what their minds are really like. Then you won’t blame the ones who make mistakes they can’t help, and you won’t feel a need for their approval. You will have seen the sources of both-their judgments and their actions. It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people but care more about their opinion than our own. If a god appeared to us-or a wise human being, even -and prohibited us from concealing our thoughts or imagining anything without immediately shouting it out, we wouldn’t make it through a single day. That’s how much we value other people’s opinions-instead of our own.
I’ve combined two sentences quite far away from each other in their locations in the book, but I bet you won’t be able to tell the difference. Such is the consistency of his ideas. They complement each other seamlessly, and it’s one of the things that made the reading experience a pleasure. The idea here is simple: Most people aren’t worth impressing, and yet, we spend so much of our time worrying about their opinions. Shame on us.
We are Social Beings
To feel affection for people even when they make mistakes is uniquely human. You can do it if you simply recognize: that they’re human too, that they act out of ignorance, against their will, and that you’ll both be dead before long. And, above all, that they haven’t really hurt you. They haven’t diminished your ability to choose.
This was a big theme in the book. Aurelius distrusts certain types of people and has a lot of disdain for those that surround him, but his ethic is to consistently do good towards others, even when they wrong you. Keep in mind that this is a book of his own thoughts. His call to make peace with others is a result of his constant conflict with them.
We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions. 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
The other ideas are to be cooperative and try to see the best in people. Instead of hating others for their shortcomings — you should appreciate their good qualities and learn from them.
This reminds me of a quote:
I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet, strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers. — Gibran Khalil Gibran
Aurelius approaches acceptance from different angles.
The Divine Mission
One is to accept your divine purpose. Instead of allowing petulant, superficial, vain urges to corrupt your soul and your duty to yourself — and to others — you should walk a steady path towards what you know you’re destined to do. You must put up a fight against anything that leads you astray.
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
Accept whatever life gives you. Don’t complain. It’s unnatural to do so and counterproductive. Instead of complaining, change your attitude (or perception). You can see your car go up in flames, and that would be an unfortunate event. I mean, you’d need to figure out how to get a new car, and how you’re going to pay for it. But that doesn’t mean you should throw a fit and tear your hair out. Shit happens all the time. It’s expected. In fact, it’s a normal part of life. It’s up to us to adjust our expectations, and then train our minds to control our reactions to situations where “shit happens”. Easier said than done of course. But what’s the alternative? Suffer constantly whenever anything goes wrong? What good is that?
People are going to disappoint you. The world is a wretched place. There’s no such thing as justice. And expecting only good things to happen is just about the most destructive thing you can do to yourself — not to mention naive and pathological.
Constant awareness that everything is born from change. The knowledge that there is nothing nature loves more than to alter what exists and make new things like it. All that exists is the seed of what will emerge from it. You think the only seeds are the ones that make plants or children? Go deeper.
The only thing we can ever know for certain is that things in the future will be different. People and things and ideas will transform. Everything is in a constant state of flux. Including ourselves. Even we don’t have a constant identity. Trying to hang on to the past — or a fixed reality — is foolish.
Love the discipline you know, and let it support you. Entrust everything willingly to the gods, and then make your way through life-no one’s master and no one’s slave. So make up your mind who you’ll choose to work with. The force that directs all things will make good use of you regardless-will put you on its payroll and set you to work. But make sure it’s not the job Chrysippus speaks of: the bad line in the play put there for laughs. Take the shortest route, the one that nature planned-to speak and act in the healthiest way. Do that, and be free of pain and stress, free of all calculation and pretension. It’s time you realized that you have something in you more powerful and miraculous than the things that affect you and make you dance like a puppet
In a sense, people are our proper occupation. Our job is to do them good and put up with them. But when they obstruct our proper tasks, they become irrelevant to us-like sun, wind, animals. Our actions may be impeded by them, but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.
A lot of the ideas are connected to this. Don’t let your pleasures, other people’s schemes, or unworthy distractions steer you away from your purpose. Aurelius constantly reminds himself to resist being tugged around by the many forces in life. It’s a relevant message for anyone pursuing a meaningful goal.
Everything gets in the way. Your friends, family, work, personal securities, physical pleasure. They all stand in your way and make your path longer and more arduous in the process. That’s why I think this simple sentence carries in it significant meaning.
The Obstacle is the Way
- I Will Read This Book Again: 2/2
- This Book Taught me Something New: 3/3
- Reading Experience (Style, Length, Flow): 4/5
If you’ve ever complained about not having enough time, money, intellect, connections, willpower to do something; you’d do good to keep the below excerpt in mind.
That concludes the list of excerpts and ideas from Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. This passes the “Only read books you would read again” test — and there’s no surprise that it’s an ancient text. Other than learning about brilliant aphorisms and wise practical philosophies that richly pour out of every single page, I have another takeaway. Simplicity. You don’t need to use complicated language to express powerful ideas. You don’t need fancy grammatical constructions. In fact, the parts of the book I enjoyed the most were when Aurelius managed to compress lifetimes of wisdom within a sentence or two. Those were magical and exquisite.
Simplicity was also a theme that he touched upon. Stripping away from life everything non-essential. And it showed in his writing. If you’ve ever had the displeasure of being in Academia you’ll notice that the opposite philosophy is being applied — especially in business school. They encourage you to take simple ideas and thoughts and express them in the most difficult language you can conceive of. I’ve tried to really unlearn that style in my writing and speech — I haven’t succeeded yet.
Thinking clearly means writing and speaking simply — even if to yourself. As Marcus Aurelius has demonstrated; especially to yourself.
Awfully repetitive, but you can’t really fault the guy. He was writing mantras into his journal and wasn’t aiming at impressing a mass audience with his most private thoughts. Meditations was an enlightening amalgamation of wise, practical, and relevant thoughts from the mind a trained stoic.