The work of Marcus Aurelius is one of the finest examples of stoic philosophy in history. His words are clear and practical, suited to the application of philosophy to the governance of one's own life and that of an empire. One of the great virtues of his work is that it came from a man who was forced by his station to apply his philosophical ideals in a practical setting. While he was undoubtedly a man of learning, his ideas have been tested upon the field of life. They have proven their merit through application rather than being the products of untried theory. His meditations are arranged as a series of reflections on the proper conduct of man, the nature of the world, and the nature of the divine. These are the thoughts of an emperor and a man who perceived the greatest good in life to de done by living in a manner that was fully present, engaged, and in service to the highest good of those to whom he administered. Furthermore these are the thoughts of a man who knew the certainty of his death. He faced this certainty squarely and with humility, recognizing that no fame or accomplishment could match the virtue of a life rightly lived. The Thoughts of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus is a collection of the principles he used to lead his life in this manner and to maintain tranquility and peace of mind amid the chaos of a war-torn empire.
The narration of the full text is preceded by a summary in which the ideas are made clear and accessible to the modern reader. The summary also includes a biographical sketch of the emperor and a brief exploration of the key features of his philosophy. The introduction is concluded with a synopsis and analysis of the work and a brief discussion of the historical context, social impact, and criticisms of the text.
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So Enriching as well as Informative
Collection of wise thoughts from a remarkable man!
Emperor Marcus Aurelius is one of the greatest stoics in history, and this work reflects his daily thoughts and little pieces of gold. It is a collection compiled throughout his lifetime, and well worth a listen for anyone interested in finding a sense of peace, balance, and discipline. The stoic philosophy, if seen from the surface, can be mistaken for a simple lack of emotion. Refusing to take joy in life while at the same time being indifferent to hardship. This is but a superficial understanding at best, and Marcus Aurelius does a beautiful job of showing the hidden depths that this surface conceals.
In a way, stoicism is like a western form of Zen. It is about acceptance of the difficulties, pain, suffering, hardship, and responsibilities of life. And about not becoming too attached to the fleeting pleasure that we sometimes use to distract ourselves from life’s challenges. But it is about so much more that simple indifference. Marcus Aurelius, though Roman, was one of the greatest advocates of Greek stoicism. This philosophy centered around the acceptance of Reason as the highest force in human experience. It taught its adherents to live in harmony with life, which comes to accepting fate, nature, and the way of the world and working within it the best we can.
Stoicism counsels gratitude, in accepting that all that comes from the gods, all we experience in the course of our lives, comes from providence. This means that it all serves us in some way. It also encourages us to live simply and without being ostentatious. To act with dignity and responsibility, without putting ourselves above those around us. And it encourages people to accept that their time in the body will end. That we all die eventually, so it isn’t wise or healthy to become overly attached to our lives or to physical pleasures. At the same time, there is a balance to the philosophy. It encourages a lifestyle that attends to the physical needs of the body, with simple diet, devoid of excesses and motivated by a willingness to take charge of our situation on every level.
In this piece, Marcus Aurelius begins with and acknowledgement of those from whom he has learned lessons in his life. He acknowledges his father and mother, grandfather and teachers, and a number of others who have made an impact upon his life. With some of these acknowledgements, it is difficult to say whether the lessons he learned were from positive or negative examples. Either way, it reflects the stoic philosophy that he is able to thank these individuals for their lessons regardless of the form taken by them. The entire first book of the Meditations is filled with these words of thanks, and concluded by a thanks to the gods for the blessings he received in his life.
Marcus Aurelius then turns to practical matters, to specific lessons and thoughts that frame his actions. These words contain a wealth of wisdom. From the thoughts with which he begins his day, thoughts of tolerance for those that fall short and an insistence that he himself follow higher standards, to the recognition that life is best lived if we recognize we could die at any moment. He addresses the temporary nature of all things, and that all things are part of a whole, that all are interdependent and work in collaboration with one another. These are practical thoughts, intended on guiding him towards purposeful action, integrity, composure, and grace, despite the uncertainties of life.
There is a scattered feel to this work, as none of the thoughts or considerations were planned in accordance with a flow or with an intention to create a contiguous piece of writing. At the same time, when taken together, a system emerges. Most philosophical works have a beginning, a process of logical development, and a conclusion. This one, on the other hand, shines a light on countless specifics of human experience, of thought and action, temperament and behavior. It is as if one could start anywhere in the work and gain something from it. Because of this, it covers a lot of ground. Marcus Aurelius’ stoicism touches upon ethics, theology, and epistemology, but it, like all of stoicism, is focused on practical philosophy, on the ideas that can help us to conduct our action to the best effect. Theoretical philosophy tries to discern the nature of existence and the meaning of life. Though these works are interesting, stoicism is a perspective that can provide immediate and tangible improvements to our life situation.
One of the things that I love most about this work is that it addresses some of the most powerful aspects of human experience. Aurelius’ words address the necessity of death, and the importance of accepting it without fear. He writes on the reality of the present and the need to focus our efforts and thoughts within it, to conserve energy and make our actions efficient by dealing with the situation at hand. Fear of death, and fear of the things that might happen in the future, are the forces that so often trap us in situations that don’t fulfil us or make us happy. These forces waste our energy and keep us from achieving our potential. Stoicism isn’t the only philosophy which helps to address these concerns, but it does so with simplicity and clarity, without superstition or dogma.
This is perhaps my favorite philosophical work. It has a grace and directness that encourages us to make the most of the life we have. It’s the sort of work that I can listen to portions of throughout the day or week, and that gives me something I can work with every time I do, and no matter how much or how little I take in. Definitely a part of my personal collection, and one I would recommend to anyone.
- Philosopher King