BY: ADRIAN SMITH
A few weeks ago, I met this guy with some of the best variety of books and novels I’ve ever seen. Naturally, we started bouncing ideas, influences and authors off each other before I asked about his favorite writer.
“Have you heard of Marcus Aurelius?”
“…The Roman Emperor?” I answered, sort of confused. I’d taken some history and classics courses in school that touched on his accomplishments—but the readings only detailed his ruling and military history. I had no idea he ever wrote.
Turns out, while preparing for military battles during his reign as the Emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius wrote internal notes in a journal as a source of his own spiritual guidance and self-improvement. In his book Meditations, Aurelius offers insights, wisdom and practical advice on everything from living in the world to coping with adversity to interacting and dealing with others. As head of the state, it was crucial he knew how to cope with members of the senate in order to mediate complicated, stressful situations that were at times literally life or death.
Marcus Aurelius offers a number of truths in Meditations that echo our way of living yet strays from due to the difficulty of keeping consistency in character. His journal starts with ‘Debts and Lessons,’ a heavy chapter where he outlines every significant lesson another person has taught him, addressing each person by name and/or title. He notes, “My Grandfather Verus: Character and Self-Control, Rusticus: To read attentively—not to be satisfied with ‘just getting the gist of it,’ Alexander The Platonist: Not to be constantly telling people (or writing them) that I’m too busy, unless I really am,” and “Maximus: The sense he gave of staying on the path rather than being kept on it.”
Throughout the remainder of books in his journal, Aurelius writes with a tone of straightforward intimacy that leaves you feeling sure of what you’ve read. He speaks stoically on the importance of trusting your first principles, trusting yourself, maintaining a healthy mind, and how distractions and disturbances exist only outside of our perception—meaning we all have the ability to silence them in order to continue with our daily affairs. He reminds us of our agency, as human beings, to determine our own actions, leaving no reason to complain or to blame others—seeing as there’s nothing holding one back from acting the right way.
His writing also shows how firmly he believed in accepting the circumstances you’ve been given, because although sporadic and sometimes adverse, he reasons those too are part of the natural order of things. Aurelius calmly assures us it’s best instead to react as closely in accordance with the logos, reason and sound judgment, when unfavorable situations arrive.
“Why all this guess-work? You can see what needs to be done. If you can see the road, follow it. Cheerfully, without turning back. If not, hold up and get the best advice you can. If anything gets in the way, forge on ahead, making good use of what you have on hand, sticking to what seems right,” he said. In his understanding of the mind, of Stoicism, and of human behavior, the former Emperor instills in us confidence that we are already privileged with everything we need to be able to endure and continue.
Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations offers simple instructions on how to improve from within and with the help of others. Nothing he writes sounds difficult or out of the ordinary—it’s everything we’ve grown to understand over the years. However, it’s refreshing to have a reminder of how easy it is to keep yourself uncomplicated, and how important it’s proved.