Meditations is the private journal of Marcus Aurelius. He was the Emperor of Rome in the second century AD, and the most powerful man on the planet. Yet his writings speak to the struggles of anyone trying to do good and live right.
These plain, clear thoughts were not meant to be read. This is not a memoir or self-help book. These are reminders of a man to himself. Reminders of what he knew and who he wanted to be. Reminders for when failure came and he needed to get back up and keep trying.
“Remember: philosophy requires only what your nature already demands.”
The Hayes translation is regarded as being the most accessible to modern readers. The book opens with an excellent short history of Marcus and his life. Among many things, you learn that Marcus wrote in Greek. Indeed, most educated Romans were bilingual and Greek was the language of philosophy.
Then the book itself starts. The first chapter is ‘Debts and Lessons’. In it he lists everyone who has helped and taught him and what he owes to them. He starts with his Grandfather and works his way through family and teachers. Such a powerful lesson in humility to start. Can you imagine Donald Trump spending his first chapter thanking everyone who made him great?
This man was not born to be Emperor, he was chosen. Compared to some of the deranged monsters who ruled Rome, his philosophy is even more remarkable.
Choice is a strong theme in Meditations. Marcus is always choosing to stay on the path. It’s not easy. It’s work.
“I do what is mine to do; the rest doesn’t disturb me.”
The writing is fucking beautiful at times. “No-one can implicate me in ugliness” is a favourite. As is “you need to get used to winnowing your thoughts.” The idea that you influence and control your thoughts is key. That you are not beholden to everything that passes through your mind.
The fifth book opens with a famous passage, a tirade against laziness and wanting to stay in bed. There’s a clear path to the exhortations of motivational speakers today. One of those yelling dudes with youtube videos with millions of views. But Marcus is talking to himself.
Should I read Meditations?
Well, it’s well-written, engaging and it just might change your life. It’s short and rewards multiple reads. It make my Desert Island Top Five with ease. In fact, it’s my Post-Apocalypse, Stuff It In Your Rucksack Even Though The Zombies Are Coming but You Always Need Reading Material book. There aren’t any others on that list.
Reviewing this book is the start of a new tradition for me, a yearly re-read of Meditations. Each time I’ve read the book different passages catch my attention. I underline new parts and scribble on other pages.
This post is inspired by Ryan Holiday’s 100 Things I Learned in 100 Reads of Meditations.
Have you read Meditations? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.