Great Ideas Collection: Aurelius

In the twelfth of our series exploring the books of Penguin’s Great Ideas Collection, Sophie Kingham reviews Marcus Aurelius’ ‘Meditations’.

The meditations of Marcus Aurelius differ from the other titles in this Great Ideas collection in that it is a series of thoughts rather than an essay. It’s fundamentally a list of quotations from the private writings of this 2nd century Roman emperor, varying in length from one sentence to several paragraphs.

Many of the sources regarding the life of Marcus Aurelius are somewhat unreliable, partly lies and fiction, so it is hard to understand this man that lived so long ago. The film Gladiator, for example, is based on the aftermath of Aurelius’ death, but most of it was made up. It is assumed, however, that Aurelius wrote Meditations in his native Greek whilst working on military campaigns between the years of 170 and 180. His words act as a source for guidance and self-improvement, but were probably never intended for publication.

His writings are reflective of his outlook as a stoic philosopher. In modern terms, the word ‘stoic’ has emotionless connotations, which isn’t entirely against this kind of philosophy; however, the original stoic texts emphasise the cultivation of happiness and compassion, as opposed to detachment from all emotions as we might understand it today.

Stoicism teaches one to have self-control over emotions, stopping destructive thoughts and behaviour before they can take effect.  A person of “moral and intellectual perfection” would not suffer with emotions such as anger, jealousy and pride. The twelve ‘books’ that make up Meditations are a series of thoughts based upon the stoic way of life Aurelius himself tried to lead – a true feat considering he was an emperor.

The first of the 12 books is an extended acknowledgement page, considering the people who have affected his life and the lessons he learnt through them. Courtesy and serenity of temper he learnt from his grandfather Verus; manliness without ostentation from his father; and from his mother, piety and generosity.   There are also the lessons he learnt from various tutors and mentors, each contributing to the development of Aurelius’ character and nature.

The remaining 11 books contain Aurelius’ thoughts on how life should be led in accordance with a stoic existence; not letting emotions take control, cultivating happiness and being open to all possibilities, whilst remaining humble. He suggests that you should

Begin each day by telling yourself: today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness, and also the nature of the culprit himself, who is my brother (not in the physical sense, but as a fellow-creature similarly endowed with reason and a share of the divine); therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading. Neither can I be angry with my brother or fall foul of him; for he and I were born to work together, like a man’s two hands, feet, or eyelids, or like the upper and lower rows of his teeth. To obstruct each other is against Nature’s law – and what is irritation or aversion but a form of obstruction?

He doesn’t gloss over the realities of life, instead opting to be upfront and honest, and suggests that you accept it and not become annoyed by another person’s attitude and behaviour; what they do is none of your business. He goes on to say that “what does not corrupt a man himself cannot corrupt his life, nor do him any damage either inwardly or outwardly.”  It’s about learning to accept whatever happens and not becoming angry or agitated; these are destructive emotions that will not be beneficial to anyone.

Aurelius also discusses the shortness of life, reminding the reader that we are just a small fragment in the whole of reality: “Think of the totality of all being, and what a mite of it is yours; think of all Time, and the brief fleeting instant of it that is allotted to yourself; think of destiny, and how puny a part of it you are”.  He emphasises making the most of your time on this earth, however long that may be, encouraging the reader to follow their destiny and do what makes them happy. “A man’s true delight is to do the things he was made for.”

This book is ultimately a how-to guide for living your life; accepting what happens and progressing forward. It is a reminder that life really is too short. Meditations is full of wisdom and advice that does not seemed to have aged. There is nothing in Aurelius’ words that would indicate a life from ancient history; making this text truly timeless.


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