An In-Depth Review: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius – Part 1

Today, I will be running a guest post by a precocious young man named Adam Isom of adamisom.com. Adam’s blog is fairly new and currently ranges between philosophy and marketing, reflective “meditations” and in-depth analyses. He has given much thought to The Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius, and has written a thoughtful and insightful analysis that he would like to share with the world – and I’m more than happy to have him post it here.

First, I thought I’d dig up a few old posts on Marcus Aurelius and Stoic Philosophy in general — For a nice introduction to Stoicism please read ‘Use Stoic Philosophy to Achieve Total Joy and Untroubling Equanimity’, and in the following post ‘Practical Wisdom: ‘Meditations’ by Marcus Aurelius’ I write my own shorter review on ‘Meditations’.   Adam’s analysis takes a different tack, however, distilling the book down to its essence, thematically speaking. Due to its length, it will appear in two parts.

If you’re interested in writing on the subjects of philosophy and wisdom, or you wish to do a review on any philosophical self-help book you’re passionate about please contact me here about the possibility of a guest post.

So without further ado, I give you…

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius by Adam Isom

Ask yourself: how many journals of campaigning emperors have I read this year? If the answer is none, you’re in for a treat: The Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius, also happens to be one of the most celebrated expositions of Stoic philosophy.

Today, we peek inside the secret journals, never meant to be read by anyone else, of the last Good Emperor of the Roman Republic. Despite their origin, the journals have been read, and continue to be read, by countless individuals seeking insight into living better.

This post does not replace actually reading the book, but it is intended to inform you what it’s all about before you even crack open the first page. The idea being, that leaves you free to focus on the subtle details and pithy expressions found therein.

How I approached reading The Meditations was to ask myself “what is he trying to say?” What follows is my multi-pronged answer to this question, examined through the concept of “themes”.

Themes and Connections

Marcus emphasizes learning tranquillity by living in the present, reflecting on the larger perspective, accepting your lot, and letting go of your fear of death and desire for posthumous fame. He exhorts sympathy and self-sufficiency, as well as spurning both pain and pleasure, or rather, the ego that affects all of these things.

These themes are related. You see the larger perspective when you let go of your ego, which you do by living in the present. And when these things are true, it’s easier to be sympathetic, and to accept your lot. It’s easier to fear death less when you see the larger perspective, and to see how worthless fame is. Just as it’s easier to get richer if you’re already rich, it’s easier to improve yourself if you’re already good by building on what you have.

By the way: If you want to read the book for yourself, you can find it online for free, here. It’s the same translation I read from. If you want to read just an excerpt of his book, go here. It brings together many of his principles in just one passage of 900 words (section 18, which is also line 20).

The Larger Perspective

By “larger perspective”, I refer to many profound realizations that have occurred to me, some of which Marcus the Emperor also realized, which I thought was cool because it means maybe we could have been buddies. At least I’d like to think so. I confess I got some of my ideas from Carl Sagan. Namely, consider that in everything there is and all of time, you are very little.  That all people in all the ages and nations of Earth have all had much the same life: have married, had children, cultivated food plants, warred, desired power, and loved.

Certain realizations such as this aren’t just intellectual; the marvel and wonder found through a deeper analysis, gaining expanded perspective, contains a world of profound spiritual power. Marcus marvels that a man can simply ‘deposit seed’ in a womb and a child will grow, or that we can pass food down our throat and it then becomes perception and motion. He wasn’t always optimistic though; far more often, he laments how ugly the world is and wonders if life is really all that great—and he lived the life of an emperor!

Death and The Present

Here is the Stoic prescription for everyday annoyances. If you see someone struggle with poverty or a noisy child, for example, or find yourself in some kind of a fight, just remember this: you’ll both be dead soon. Memento mori. And if you really do it, you’ll  soften and find sympathy for them every time. Not only will you both be dead in a few decades, but it is something neither of you can avoid and that you both fear.

But what is death? If it’s merely new sensation, then it’s a new kind of life–which isn’t so bad, right? But here’s the kicker: if it’s the lack of sensation, then there’s no pain and you should not fear it. In my view, it basically boils down to the fact that you can’t think ‘oh no, I’m dead!’ if you’re like a doornail. Now, it may seem to be obscenely obvious, but what does death, exactly, deprive you of?

According to Marcus, only the present, because the present is all we ever have. The past and the future are just memories and speculations taking place in the present. This message is commonly repeated in modern self-help, perhaps the best example of which is The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. Since each person has only this “indivisible point”, she should live as if each act were here last, which to Marcus means something rather different than most people’s idea of what it means. He reminds you that your life becomes shorter every day and that you may die at any moment. And therefore, that you should get on with living.

So how should you go about living?

Read Part 2: Click here

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