- “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius is a timeless exploration of Stoic philosophy and the art of living a virtuous life.
- The book offers insights into self-awareness, resilience, and acceptance in the face of life’s challenges.
- Its clear and concise style makes it accessible to a wide range of readers, providing practical wisdom for daily contemplation.
Stoicism is a branch of philosophy that emphasizes individual detachment. The Stoic lets go of the many aspects of life that they can’t change, such as failing health, disasters, or professional setbacks. Instead, the Stoic focuses their energy on what they can control, like their attitudes and goals. In this book review, you’ll learn how to apply the basic precepts of Stoicism to your modern-day problems by letting go of anxiety and focusing your energy on your inner life.
Marcus Aurelius was a stoic philosopher and emperor of Rome from the year 161 to 190 and said to be the last of the five good Roman emperors.
During his 19-year reign, Marcus faced considerable hardship – war with barbarian tribes, a hostile takeover attempt by a close ally, an incompetent and greedy stepbrother as a co-emperor, an economy on the verge of collapse, and the death of several children.
Ancient wisdom for modern dilemmas.
READ THIS BOOK REVIEW IF YOU:
- Are interested in ancient philosophy and the tenets of Stoicism
- Seek basic advice for a better life
- Wonder how the insights of a Roman emperor apply to your daily life
Table of Contents
Marcus Aurelius was a 2nd century Roman Emperor whose career was plagued by natural disasters, violence, and political upheaval. While Aurelius climbed to prominence almost 2,000 years ago, his writings are still relevant today and offer modern audiences insight into how a revered leader managed to do his job amid incredibly stressful circumstances.
The following sections of this summary explore some of the emperor’s wisdom for maintaining personal peace and enjoying life in an unpredictable world.
Dealing with People
When you begin each morning, make peace with the fact that you’ll spend much of your day dealing with irritating, incompetent characters. Humans are imperfect, and it’s inevitable that you’ll cross paths with the arrogant, the unkind, and the annoying. Your colleague in the neighboring cubicle will chew his gum with his mouth open. Your Uber driver will have body odor. A male co-worker will talk over you during a meeting, or your mother will continue to call with unsolicited advice about your love life.
Remember that humans are social creatures by nature, so when socializing, these realities are unavoidable. Injustice, pain, and irritation are simply the way of life, and you’ll be better off if you make peace with these disturbances instead of letting them cause you angst at every turn.
Life is unfathomably short. Death hangs over you in every moment, and you must face the fact that its arrival will be random. You might go through your day minding your endless to-do list only to be hit by a bus. You might spend the present moment worrying about your future only to discover a lump in your breast. Consider the people who came before you in life. They spent just as much time carefully planning their choices or worrying about their finances — yet, death claimed them anyway. Your situation is no different.
In each moment, remember that your time on this planet is increasingly brief. Therefore, don’t worry about the future or about events that are outside of your control. Do whatever is in your power and be happy about it while you can.
Everyone desires their own form of fame. Perhaps you want to be the employee who devises a revolutionary idea that will change your company. Perhaps you want to write a bestselling book that will receive rave reviews. Or perhaps you simply want to be the kind of parent that your child will love and cherish, even after you pass on.
However, you’ll be a far happier person if you banish these ideas from your mind and stop worrying about fame, as this is the wrong use of your ambition and energy. Consider all the famous writers, inventors, and leaders who came before you. In your mind, the world wouldn’t exist as it does without their unique contributions. Yet those celebrities met the same fate that every other human must eventually encounter: They all disappeared into death. Fame cannot save you from this inevitability.
Also, consider that memory is relatively limited. Do you really know anything about your great-great-grandmother? Will people be talking about Martin Scorsese in 200 years? Even the most exciting public figures of the present recede into the blind oblivion of history. If fame is your goal, you’ll never attain what you seek. Even if you do manage to make it big, everyone will still forget about you eventually.
But don’t let this fate depress you; rather, let it be a reminder to take it easy. Whatever you do in life, you have the freedom to do it because you love it. Run for local office because you love kissing babies. Make a movie because you love the process of collaborating with actors. Write a book because you enjoy getting lost in the psychology of your characters. Once you let go of the false promises of fame, you can live for love instead.
You contain three basic components: a body, the contents of your life, and your mind. You’re obligated to take care of all these components. Do your best to stay healthy by eating wisely and exercising. Do your best to take care of your family and honor your vocation. Do your best to go to therapy, show yourself some compassion, and improve your intelligence.
However, don’t mistakenly assume that your perfect efforts will lead to a perfect life. Even if you do all the right things, like yearly checkups or regular exercise, you might end up with a terminal diagnosis. Even if you work really hard at the office, you might get laid-off. Your best efforts won’t influence the random twists of fate that pervade human existence, and your life might go haywire even if you manage to make all the right choices.
The only aspect of yourself that you can truly control is your mind. You have the power to observe the way you think. You can observe your tendency to hold grudges or feed on anger. You can go to therapy and address your recurring pattern of playing the victim. You can choose to be better informed on current events or to improve your intellect by reading more summary.
Your attitudes, emotions, and mental patterns are under your control, so use that power to improve in any way you can. Don’t waste time fretting about the aspects of your life that are impossible to change. Instead, direct your energy to the part of yourself that is within your power.
Use Your Head
The circumstances of your life will never be sources of contentment and peace. You can’t rely on an elusive promotion or a perfect relationship to make you feel whole. If your workday is full of chaos or your home is a source of stress, you don’t need new circumstances in order to find peace. Instead, you can find peace in your own mind.
Every person has the power to retreat into their mind. You can take a deep breath, close your eyes, and experience stillness, even if you’re surrounded by anxious co-workers and arguing children. Serenity is always accessible, and you don’t need to alter your circumstances to attain it.
If life feels stressful and disorganized, take a moment to reflect on your principles. Remember that your values and beliefs ought to be your highest priority. Focus your efforts on activities and relationships that are true to your ideals and let the rest fade away. Furthermore, remind yourself of the brevity of life and remember that suffering is inevitable. Instead of feeling resentful about your circumstances, accept them as an unavoidable part of life and move on.
The most authentic satisfaction comes from within. You can be your own source of peace and contentment. Take care of your mind by paying attention to how it works and becoming mindful of your true priorities. If you can do this, your mind will ultimately take care of you.
Don’t worry about what other people do, say, or think. Remember that the stuff of life belongs to one of two categories: the things you can control and the things you can’t control. Other people always fall into the latter category.
You can’t force a co-worker to like you or prevent your neighbor from letting their dog relieve itself on your property. These occurrences might feel irritating, but in the end, you can’t control what people do. You can surprise your co-worker with an endless deluge of homemade baked goods, but they still might think that you’re an inferior copywriter. You can report your neighbor to the Neighborhood Association and instigate a crusade against dog poop, but that still won’t prevent a canine from squatting by your mailbox. Your energy and emotion will come to no avail.
You’ll be better off if you learn to let go of such anxieties and focus your energy on the parts of life that you can control. If you want to get into that co-worker’s good graces, you can be courteous and diligent when you work together, but don’t lose yourself in anxiety if your actions don’t produce the intended consequences. You can talk to your neighbor about their dog, but don’t let yourself fall into a downward spiral of loathing and resentment if that neighbor refuses to listen. Focus on your mind and find ways to be at peace with unpleasant circumstances.
Getting Out of Bed
When your alarm goes off in the early hours of the morning, and the rainfall against your roof makes you want to stay in bed instead of chasing the bus, tell yourself this: “I rise to the work of a human being.”
Why are you on this planet? Are you here to be comfortable — to stay in bed all day eating Hot Pockets and rewatching every season of Mad Men? No. You’re here to fulfill your calling. You’re here to till your tiny corner of the universe. Are you a painter? Get out of bed and put something on a canvas. Are you an engineer? Get out of bed and write some code. Are you a writer? Get out of bed and summarize a book.
You know what you’re here for. You’re here to be a human being so do what humans do. Live well. Take care of yourself and other people. Live according to your beliefs. Brush your teeth and put on real clothes instead of moping around the house in that unwashed bathrobe. You have a body and brain so put them to use — and for God’s sake, stop eating Hot Pockets.
Judging the Universe
The things that happen in life — such as hurricanes, layoffs, infidelity, or asteroids — are all natural occurrences. They just happen. They belong to the universe, and they’re neither good nor bad.
Resist the urge to judge the contents of your life. Don’t give the universe the evil eye if a tree falls on your garage. Don’t blame the forces that be if your lover stops loving you. Accept everything that happens to you, even if it’s disagreeable and painful. The universe has given you this fate, so who are you to argue?
Furthermore, the universe is indifferent. The hardships you suffer aren’t a personal attack from the divine. They’re just the way of life. Instead of judging the universe and becoming resentful because of your hardships, practice acceptance. Don’t label certain events as good or bad, blessing or curse. Simply accept that they exist. Make peace with your life, however it happens to unfold.
Take it upon yourself to exercise your power for the sake of others. Injustice and oppression are incorrect human behaviors, and to perpetuate an injustice is to act against yourself, for you damage the quality of your soul if you hurt other people. You must not only strive to act in the most just way but also wield your power to alleviate oppression.
This balance may feel difficult to strike. You might ask, “How can I practice acceptance of the universe and work to change the world?” The answer is that you must cherish both aims. Go to the Capitol to lobby for gun reform but don’t hate your life if you fail to influence legislation. Work as hard as you can to elect the first black female governor of your state but don’t fall into depression if her conservative opponent rigs the election in his favor. Hold onto your inner peace — even if things don’t go your way.
Every change, even a positive one, can feel difficult. Your long-awaited promotion will come with new hours and responsibilities, and it might take time to get used to that. Getting married might be what you truly desire, but that won’t make it any easier to find someone else’s socks and toenail clippings around your house.
Every good in life requires change. Seeds change to become consumable crops. You get smarter in order to get your degree. You outgrow your favorite shirt in order to become an adult. As you encounter the more difficult changes in life, remind yourself that change is the source of every good thing. Also, remind yourself that change is inevitable and stop fighting it.
One More Note on Brevity
Life is short, and it will be over before you know it. Stop worrying about anything (and everything) that’s beyond your control. Stop fretting about the future and the opinions that other people hold. Focus your energy on your own business and don’t let the uncontrollable elements of life ruin the precious time you have left.
Marcus Aurelius relied on a collection of ancient stoic practices to cope with hardship, manage stress, and remain a posed, effective, and beloved leader – here are three such stoic practices:
“Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness.” – Marcus Aurelius
Marcus routinely rehearsed interacting with people who made him feel stressed. Paradoxically, simulating stress allowed Marcus to experience less stress throughout the day.
Praemeditatio Malorum, which is Latin for “Premeditation of Adversity,” is the act of imagining and accepting a troubling event; not thinking of ways to avoid an undesirable outcome but accepting an undesirable outcome has occurred and learning how to cope.
The key to stress management is convincing your mind you can cope with any situation. By imagining a worst-case scenario has come true and rehearsing how you’ll deal with the fallout, you convince your mind that you’ll handle any outcome.
If you’re about to give a presentation, assume it’s already gone badly and now you need to deal with the embarrassment and shame that you feel. As those feelings wash over you, you’ll realize it sucks, but you’re still alive. An hour after the presentation, the stress will be greatly diminished; a day later, you’ll have moved past it, and a month later, you’ll have completely forgotten about it.
“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.” – Marcus Aurelius
When you encounter a troubling situation, reframe the situation as an opportunity to practice virtue.
Virtue is derived from the Greek word ‘Arete,’ which means ‘excellence of character.’ If you’re not sure which virtues to practice during the day, imagine a person you admire, alive or dead, and ask yourself, “Which character traits do I want to emulate?” I often imagine Winston Churchill and set an intention to practice steadfastness and decisiveness, or I consider my favorite college professor and aim to express the virtues of curiosity and humility.
At the start of Meditations, Marcus created a long list of traits he admired in family members and mentors. Later Marcus concludes, “In human life there is nothing better than the virtues of justice, truth, temperance and fortitude to attain complete self-satisfaction (paraphrased)”
The next time you encounter hardship, select a virtue you admire in others and wish to develop in yourself. Reframe a stressful situation as an opportunity to accelerate the development of that virtue in your life and become a person others will admire.
“Here is a rule to remember in future, when anything tempts you to feel bitter: not ‘This is misfortune,’ but ‘To bear this worthily is good fortune.’” – Marcus Aurelius
“The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.” – Marcus Aurelius
The human mind is like a great Hollywood director – it’s great at adding drama to events and making situations seem dire. When we encounter a setback, it’s natural to use vivid emotional language and describe the situation as “devastating,” “horrible,” or “terrible.” It’s natural to jump to a dire conclusion and assume “I’m doomed” or “Everyone will think I’m an idiot for letting this happen.” Dramatic and dire descriptions unnecessarily amplify stress.
If we learn to strip away emotional language when describing a problem and talk about the problem like a scientist or a robot, only talking about the facts and never making untested assumptions, we can manage stressful events with grace. If you’ve just delivered a poor presentation to your boss, don’t tell yourself, “Damn, that was awful, my boss probably thinks I’m an idiot. I’ll never get that promotion.” Drop the emotional baggage, and just stick to the facts: “That wasn’t my best performance.”
“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.” – Marcus Aurelius
Much of life is — and will continue to be — outside of your control. Don’t worry about the events and people that you can’t change. Instead, work to influence the realms of life that are within your power. How you think and feel will always be under your control. Live as virtuously as you can, and don’t worry about the rest.
Above all, remember that your time on this planet is brief so make the most of it.
Marcus Aurelius was the Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 AD. His Meditations are considered a classic cornerstone of Stoic philosophy.
David Hicks spent decades heading independent schools in the United States while speaking and writing in defense of classical learning in the modern academy. In 1982 his book Norms & Nobility, a treatise on education, won the American Library Association’s Outstanding Book Award for education. He was President of Darlington School in Rome, Georgia, and he and his family make their permanent home at West of the Moon, a ranch in Montana’s Madison Valley. David and Scot Hicks are brothers.
Scot Hicks headed schools in Greece, France, and the United States and for over twenty years taught Latin and Greek in Europe and America. His translation of Sophocles’s Antigone was performed at schools and at the Aspen Institute in Colorado. His other translations from Greek include Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, and translations of Latin, Italian, French and English poetry have appeared in reviews in France, where he lives with his family in Brittany. Scot and David Hicks are brothers.
Personal Memoirs, Philosophy, Nonfiction, Classics, History, Self Help, Psychology, Personal Development, Spirituality, Leadership, Biography, Ancient Fiction and Literature Classics, Ancient Greek Philosophy, Ancient Philosophy, Ethics and Moral Philosophy, Free Will and Determinism, Ancient Greek History, Humanism, Roman Philosophy
“Meditations” is a timeless and revered work of philosophy written by Marcus Aurelius, one of the most famous Stoic philosophers and the Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD. Composed as a series of personal notes and reflections, the book is a deep exploration of Stoic philosophy and offers valuable insights into the human condition. It is considered a classic of Western philosophy and continues to be widely read and studied for its wisdom and guidance.
The book consists of twelve books or chapters, each addressing different aspects of life, ethics, and human nature. Marcus Aurelius wrote “Meditations” as a form of self-examination and guidance, reflecting on his own experiences and the challenges he faced as a leader. Some of the key themes explored in the book include:
- The Nature of the Self: Marcus Aurelius delves into the concept of the self, emphasizing the importance of self-awareness and understanding one’s true nature.
- Stoic Virtues: He discusses the Stoic virtues of wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance and how to cultivate them to lead a virtuous life.
- Resilience and Acceptance: The author encourages readers to accept the natural order of the universe and face adversity with equanimity, emphasizing that we have control over our reactions and attitudes.
- Impermanence: Marcus Aurelius reflects on the impermanence of life and the transient nature of all things, reminding us to focus on what is within our control.
- Duty and Service: He emphasizes the importance of fulfilling one’s duty and serving the greater good, even in the face of difficulties.
“Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius is a profound work that provides invaluable insights into the Stoic philosophy and the art of living a meaningful and virtuous life. The book’s enduring appeal can be attributed to its timeless wisdom, as the principles and advice offered by the author are as relevant today as they were in ancient Rome.
What makes “Meditations” unique is its deeply personal and reflective nature. It offers a window into the mind of a Roman Emperor who grappled with the same fundamental questions and challenges that we all face: how to live a good life, how to deal with adversity, and how to find purpose and meaning. The book is a guide to moral and ethical living, emphasizing the importance of self-discipline, self-awareness, and rationality.
Marcus Aurelius’ writing style is clear and concise, making complex philosophical ideas accessible to a wide range of readers. His reflections are often presented in the form of short, aphoristic passages, making it easy to read and digest in small increments. This format allows readers to reflect on each passage individually, making it an ideal companion for daily contemplation.
One of the most enduring aspects of “Meditations” is its emphasis on resilience and acceptance in the face of life’s uncertainties and challenges. It encourages readers to cultivate inner strength and to maintain a sense of serenity regardless of external circumstances. This Stoic philosophy is particularly relevant in today’s world, where many grapple with stress, anxiety, and uncertainty.
In conclusion, “Meditations” is a must-read for anyone interested in philosophy, self-improvement, and the pursuit of wisdom. It offers profound insights and practical guidance for leading a life of virtue and tranquility. Whether you are a seasoned philosopher or a newcomer to the world of Stoicism, this book has much to offer and is a testament to the enduring power of timeless wisdom.