“Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work—as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”

—But it’s nicer here…

So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?

—But we have to sleep sometime…

Agreed. But nature set a limit on that—as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit. You’ve had more than enough of that. But not of working. There you’re still below your quota.

You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you. People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash or eat. Do you have less respect for your own nature than the engraver does for engraving, the dancer for the dance, the miser for money or the social climber for status? When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts.

Meditations is a 2,000 year old private diary written by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. He was the most powerful man of his time, and his journal entries were mostly reminders not to let that go to his head, that time waits for no one, and that everything is temporary. These reminders are still potent and humbling today. These are truly words to live by and I count myself fortunate to be able to meditate on them every now and then.

I carried this book around Europe with me in the Summer of 2011 and  re-read it last month. Seeing my aged and faded highlights were a fascinating reminder of the time past and how I’ve changed: my priorities are different now and I ended up highlighting completely different passages this time around.

 

Highlights

Book 1: Debts and Lessons

  • Rusticus—The recognition that I needed to train and discipline my character.
  • Sextus— Not to display anger or other emotions. To be free of passion and yet full of love. To praise without bombast; to display expertise without pretension.
  • The Literary Critic Alexander—Not to be constantly correcting people, and in particular not to jump on them whenever they make an error of usage or a grammatical mistake or mispronounce something, but just answer their question or add another example, or debate the issue itself (not their phrasing), or make some other contribution to the discussion—and insert the right expression, unobtrusively.
  • Maximus—Self-control and resistance to distractions. Doing your job without whining.
  • My Adopted Father—The way he kept public actions withing reasonable bounds—games, building projects, distributions of money and so on—because he looked to what needed doing and not the credit to be gained from doing it.

Book 2: On the River Gran, Among the Quadi

The world is maintained by change—in the elements and in the things they compose.

Remember how long you’ve been putting this off, how many extensions the gods gave you, and you didn’t use them. 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 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 going in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable. You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life?

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.

But death and life, success and failure, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty, all these happen to good and bad alike, and they are neither noble nor shameful—and hence neither good nor bad.

Remember two things:

i. that everything has always been the same, and keeps recurring, and it makes no difference whether you see the same things recur in a hundred years or two hundred, or in an infinite period;

ii. that the longest-lived and those who will die soonest lose the same thing. The present is all that they can give up, since that is all you have, and what you do not have, you cannot lose.

The human soul degrades itself:

i. Above all, when it does its best to become an abscess, a kind of detached growth on the world. To be disgruntled at anything that happens is a kind of secession of Nature, which comprises the nature of all things.

ii. When it turns its back on another person or sets out to do it harm, as the souls of the angry do.

iii. When it is overpowered by pleasure or pain.

iv. When it puts on a mask and does or says something artificial or false.

v. When it allows its action and impulse to be without a purpose, to be random and disconnected: even the smallest things ought to be direct toward a goal.

Book 3: In Carnuntum

Not just that every day more of our life is used up and less and less of it is left, but this too: if we live longer, can we be sure our mind will still be up to understanding the world—to the contemplation that aims at divine and human knowledge? If our mind starts to wander, we’ll still go on breathing, go on eating, imagining things, feeling urges and so on. But getting the most out of ourselves, calculating where our duty lies, analyzing what we hear and see, deciding whether it’s time to call it quits—all the things you need a healthy mind for…all those are gone.

So we need to hurry.

Not just because we move daily closer to death but also because our understanding—our grasp of the world—may be gone before we get there.

Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people—unless it affects the common goof. 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 p to, and all the other things that throw you off and keep you from focusing on your own mind.

Your ability to control your thoughts—treat it with respect. It’s all that protects your mind from false perceptions—false to your nature, and that of all rational beings. It’s what makes thoughtfulness possible, and affection for other people, and submission to the divine.

Book 4

People try to get away from it all—to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like.

By going within.

Nowhere you can go is more peaceful—more free of interruptions—than your own soul. Especially if you have other things to rely on. An instant’s recollection and there it is: complete tranquility. And by tranquility I mean a kind of harmony.

So keep getting away from it all—like that. Renew yourself. But keep it brief and basic.

No one does the wrong thing deliberately.

Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed.

Don’t feel harmed—and you haven’t been.

What use is praise, except to make your lifestyle a little more comfortable?

“If you seek tranquility, do less.” Or (more accurately) do what’s essential—what the logos of a social being requires, and in the requisite way. Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better.

Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquility. Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary?”

Life is short. That’s all there is to say. Get what you can from the present—thoughtfully, justly.

Time is a river, a violent current of events, glimpsed once and already carried past us, and another follows and is gone.

Book 5

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work—as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”

—But it’s nicer here…

So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?

—But we have to sleep sometime…

Agreed. But nature set a limit on that—as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit. You’ve had more than enough of that. But not of working. There you’re still below your quota.

You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you. People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash or eat. Do you have less respect for your own nature than the engraver does for engraving, the dancer for the dance, the miser for money or the social climber for status? When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts.

So there are two reasons to embrace what happens. One is that it’s happening to you. It was prescribed for you, and it pertains to you. The thread was spun long ago, by the oldest cause of all.

The other reason is that what happens to an individual is a cause of well-being in what directs the world—of its well-being, its fulfillment, of its very existence, even. Because the whole is damaged if you cut away anything—anything at all—from its continuity and its coherence. Not only its parts, but its purposes. And that’s what you’re doing when you complain: hacking and destroying.

What am I doing with my soul?

Interrogate yourself, to find out what inhabits your so-called mind and what kind of soul you have now. A child’s soul, an adolescent’s, a woman’s? A tyrant’s soul? The soul of a predator—or its prey?

The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.

In a sense, people are out proper occupation. Our job is to do them good and put up with them.

Keep in mind how fast things pass by and are gone—those that are now, and those to come. Existence flows past us like a river: the “what” is in constant flux, the “why” has a thousand variations. Nothing is stable, not even what’s right here. The infinity of past and future gapes before us—a chasm whose depths we cannot see.

So it would take an idiot to feel self-importance or distress. Or any indignation, either. As if the things that irritate us lasted.

 Remember:

Matter. How tiny your share of it.

Time. How brief and fleeting your allotment of it.

Fate. How small a role you play in it.

Treat humans as they deserve, be tolerant with others and strict with yourself. Remember, nothing belongs to you but your flesh and blood—and nothing else is under your control.

I was once a fortunate man but at some point fortune abandoned me.

But true good fortune is what you make for yourself. Good fortune: good character, good intentions, and good actions.

Book 6

The mind is that which is roused and directed by itself. It makes of itself what it chooses. It makes what it chooses of its own experience.

Some things are rushing into existence, others out of it. Some of what now exists is already gone. Change and flux constantly remake the world, just as the incessant progression of time remakes eternity.

We find ourselves in a river. Which of the things around us should we value when none of them can offer a firm foothold?

Like an attachment to a sparrow: we glimpse it and then it’s gone.

Not to assume it’s impossible because you find it hard. But to recognize that if it’s humanly possible, you can do it too.

The things ordained for you—teach yourself to be at one with those. And the people who share them with you—treat them with love.

With real love.

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.

Ambition means trying your well-being to what other people say or do.

Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you.

Sanity means tying it to your own actions.

Practice really hearing what people say. Do your best to get inside their minds.

Book 7

Evil: the same old thing.

No matter what happens, keep this in mind: It’s the same old thing, from one end of the world to the other. It fills the history books, ancient and modern, and the cities, and the houses too. Nothing new at all.

Familiar, transient.

Pointless bustling of processions, opera arias, herds of sheep and cattle, military exercises. A bone flung to pet poodles, a little food in the fish tank. The miserable servitude of ants, scampering of frightened mice, puppets jerked on strings.

Surrounded as we are by all of this, we need to practice acceptance. Without disdain. But remembering that our own worth is measured by what we devote our energy to.

Frightened of change? But what can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you take a hot bath and leave the firewood as it was? Eat food without transforming it? Can any vital process take place without something being changed?

Can’t you see? It’s just the same with you—and just as vital to nature.

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. Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion. Is that so hard?

Self-contradiction: the mind’s requirements are satisfied by doing what we should, and by the calm it brings us.

“And why should we feel anger at the world?

As if the world would notice!”

Look at the past—empire succeeding empire—and from that, extrapolate the future: the same thing. No escape from the rhythm of events.

Which is why observing for forty years is as good as a thousand. Would you really see anything new?

You participate in a society by your existence. Then participate in its life through your actions—all your actions. Any action not directed toward a social end (directly or indirectly) is a disturbance to your life, an obstacle to wholeness, a source of dissension.

Your actions and perceptions need to aim:

  • at accomplishing practical ends
  • at the exercise of thought
  • at maintaining a confidence founded on understanding. An unobtrusive confidence—hidden in plain sight

Learn to ask of all actions, “Why are they doing that?” Starting with your own.

Book 11

“And your profession?” “Goodness.” (And how is that to be achieved, except by thought—about the world, about the nature of people?)

A branch cut away from the branch beside it is simultaneously cut away from the whole tree. So too a human being separated from another is cut loose from the whole community.

The branch is cut off by someone else. But people cut themselves off—through hatred, through rejection—and don’t realize that they’re cutting themselves off from the whole civic enterprise.

It’s the pursuit of these things, and your attempts to avoid them, that leave you in such turmoil. And yet they aren’t seeking you out; you and the one seeking them.

Someone despises me.

That’s their problem.

Mine: not to do or say anything despicable.

Someone hates me. Their problem.

Mine: to be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them. Ready to show them their mistake. Not spitefully, or to show off my own self-control, but in an honest, upright way. Like Phocion (if he wasn’t just pretending). That’s what we should be like inside, and never let the gods catch us feeling anger or resentment.

As long as you do what’s proper to your nature, and accept what the world’s nature has in store—as long as you work for others’ good, by any and all means—what is there that can harm you?

A straightforward, honest person should be like someone who stinks: when you’re in the same room with him, you know it.

To live a good life:

We have the potential for it. If we can learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference. This is how we learn: by looking at each thing, both the parts and the whole. Keeping in mind that none of them can dictate how we perceive it. They don’t impose themselves on us. They hover before us, unmoving. It is we who generate the judgments—inscribing them on ourselves. And we don’t have to. We could leave the page blank—and if a mark slips through, erase it instantly.

Remember how brief is the attentiveness required. And then our lives will end.

And why is it so hard when things go against you? If it’s imposed byu nature, accet it gladly and stop fighting it. And if not, work out what your own nature requires, and aim at that, even if it brings you no glory.

None of us is forbidden to pursue our own good.

When you lose your temper, or even feel irritated: that human life is very short. Before long all of us will be laid out side by side.

How much more damage anger and grief do than the things that cause them.

When you start to lose your temper, remember: There’s nothing manly about rage. It’s courtesy and kindness that define a human being—and a man. That’s who possesses strength and nerves and guts, not the angry whiners. To react like that brings you closer to impassivity—and so to strength. Pain is the opposite of strength, and so is anger.

“If you don’t have a consistent goal in life, you can’t live it in a consistent way.”

Unhelpful, unless you specify a goal.

There is no common benchmark for all the things that people think are good—except for a few, the ones that affect us all. So the goal should be a common one—a civic one. If you direct all your energies toward that, your actions will be consistent. And so will you.

Stupidity is expecting figs in winter, or children in old age.

Book 12

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.

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 out 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.

Practice even what seems impossible.

The left hand is useless at almost everything, for lack of practice. But it guides the reins better than the right. From practice.

 

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