Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, and anyone with an old sounding Greek name brings up memories of college philosophy 101. As with most colleges philosophy is a required class, fairly dry and hardly relevant to the practical life of a young, up and coming Naval Officer. My initial experience with philosophy was so dry that I waited nearly 15 years to pick up my next book on philosophy. I’m glad that Marcus Aurelius was my first book.
Marcus Arurlious was born in AD 121. Forty years later he rose to become the Emperor of Rome, and who history will always remember as the “Final Good Emperor of Rome”. As to be expected, young “emperors in training” received a liberal and diverse education to include art, the sciences, combat and philosophy. Of all his studies Marcus Aurelius most favored philosophy as taught by Sextus Chaeronesis, Plutarch’s grandson.
During the time of Marcus Aurelius Stoicism was one of the popular philosophies of the day. Stoicism taught that the only thing one can truly control is the mind, and that the highest accomplishment is not to have power over others, but power over the self.
While one may expect a book with the title “Meditations” to be long and dry, Marcus Aurelius is nothing of the sort. His ideas are easy to grasp, and easy to apply with none of his ideas consisting of more than a page of txt. For example one of his greatest ideas are contained in the very first section of his book. He discusses the concept of dealing with difficult people and instructs himself to view them as kinsmen, as of the same blood and necessary to each other’s survival.
Say thus to thyself every morning: to day I may have to do with some intermeddler in other men’s affairs, with an ungrateful man; an insolent, or a crafty, or an envious, or an unsociable selfish man. These bad qualities have befallen them through their ignorance of what things are truly good or evil. But I have fully comprehended the nature of good, as only what is beautiful and honorable; and of evil, that it is always deformed and shameful; and the nature of those persons too † who mistake their aim; that they are my kinsmen, by partaking, not of the same blood or seed, but of the same ‡ intelligent divine part; and that I cannot be hurt by any of them, since none of them can involve me in anything dishonorable or deformed. I cannot be angry at my kinsmen, or hate them. We were formed by nature for mutual assistance, as the two feet, the hands, the eyelids, the upper and lower rows of teeth. Opposition to each other is contrary to nature: All anger and aversion is an opposition.
And my favorite quote of his:
Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.
Along with DODReads.com there are number of historical figures who agree that Meditations deserves a special place in your library. Theodore Roosevelt while exploring South America carried meditations with him, President Lincoln kept a copy on his night stand, and President Clinton re-reads Meditations every year.
A book that has stood the test of 2000 years is well worth reading, and wisdom from the ancients is well worth understanding. As the fellow stoic Epictetus would say “Education is the one possession which can never be taken away”, one would be well educated by reading this book.
While the books can be purchased on Amazon, there are also a number of free PDF downloads. My favorite is the Liberty Fund Inc. available here.