Step 1: Meditations - INTRODUCTION
The Meditations of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121–180 CE) were a series of discussions begun earlier in life with esteemed philosophers. The reign of Marcus Aurelius (161–180 CE) was fraught with continual conflict, both in Rome and across the outer reaches of the empire. The entries in The Meditations serve as a reminder of the morals of a Stoic, a believer in the ancient Greek philosophy that an individual must practice virtue and ignore such distractions as emotions and pain in order to be happy. They also show how Aurelius uniquely applied his values to the challenges he faced. He struggled as an individual to attain a balanced state between nature and fate, social and personal truth, and reason amid chaos.
Step 2: Meditations - HIS FIRST BOOK
The opening section of Meditations serves as both an introduction to the philosophical and ethical orientations of the author and a dedication/acknowledgments passage. The first sentence reads, "From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper." Subsequent paragraphs continue in kind, naming his influences and then stating what he learned from each one. This book provides a kind of symbolic "shrine" through which Aurelius pays homage to his forefathers and mother, peers, mentors, teachers, and those philosophers who contributed to the foundation of his personal sense of moral, ethical, and reverential honor.
The last paragraph thanks the gods, the givers of all these good people in his life. By mentioning his sources of inspiration, Aurelius reminds himself of his intent to maintain a simple, humble, and respectful attitude over the course of his life.
Step 3: Meditations - THE SECOND BOOK
Aurelius starts off with a fairly pessimistic statement that likely reflects the bulk of his interactions with military personnel in the field. That is, each day is filled with unavoidable vexations caused by the ignorance of other people. He will meet with "the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial." He reminds himself not to worry about them, for they are made as nature intended them to be.
The author presents the important principles by which he can guide himself through these kinds of frustrations. As he will remind himself throughout Meditations in different ways, his life is brief and made up of "a little flesh and breath and the ruling part [intelligence]." Instead of worrying about what other people think or do, it is up to him to see to his own duty and to discipline his thoughts accordingly.
In this book Aurelius includes a debate about which is worse: desire or anger. He cites the philosopher Theophrastus's beliefs that offenses committed through desire "are more blameable" than those committed through anger. While anger colors one's reason, desire overpowers it. Regulation of "every act and thought" helps a man avoid falling under the influence of either emotion.
Step 4: Meditations - THE THIRD BOOK
Never one to waste time, Aurelius advises making the most of what is to be had in physical health and strength of mind in the present moment, for time eventually corrodes these elements either by death or old age. Such change is inevitable, and Aurelius mentions the physical degradation and death of several esteemed philosophers and emperors, including Alexander the Great. At the same time, he says, things derived from nature hold at least a temporary beauty and essence of their own. He gives the example of a loaf of bread which, when baked, has a split in the top of it. While this "disfigurement" is not "ideal" in beauty, it carries the implication of something good and wholesome to eat.
It is useless to look after what other people are doing or saying. Instead, Aurelius advises to stick to good principles that mutually and interchangeably serve the individual man, society as a whole, and the divine. The concept of the divine includes the "deity which is in thee," which is detached from the senses and answerable to the gods. Take the lessons of history to heart, and then discard the history books, he says, because it does no good to brood on the accomplishments of others. As for the self, all accomplishments are their own reward, and the praises or condemnations of others are irrelevant.
Step 5: Meditations - THE FOURTH BOOK
In Book 4 Aurelius speculates on the type of sanctuary that best supports the individual self. He advocates against vainly amassing an outward show of material wealth. Instead, he suggests practicing self-discipline by creating personal order and tranquility from within. The practice provides insulation from jealousy and discontent on the part of others, and reminds the individual to curb appetites for fame, fortune, and praise.
Aurelius also brings up the topic of political community as supported and sustained by the same rational principles as those sustaining a good man. What is good for the whole in the ordering of the universe is good for society and is also good for the individual. One cannot be a stranger to the universe and what is going on there; to act this way is to be like a philosopher without clothes.
Not only is life brief for both "beggar and king," Aurelius says, but its events and activities (birth, sickness, heath, marriage, warring, feasting, etc.) are repeating and cyclical. The same things happen to all people in their lives. The difference is in how the continual changes from one state to the other (exemplified by the exchanges of transformation between the elements of earth, air, fire, and water) are perceived. One person buries another, just as whole cities, such as Pompeii and Herculaneum, were once buried. It therefore makes no sense to let a fear of death guide one's life.
Book 4 contains a series of short aphorisms. For instance, Aurelius says, "Be like the promontory (a high point of land projecting into the sea) against which waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it."
Step 6: Meditations - THE FIFTH BOOK
This section begins with outlining the relationship between labor and rest. Just as it is necessary to allocate sufficient time in the day for eating and drinking, so is it necessary to set aside appropriate periods for work and leisure in such a way that these daily routines follow the principles of a person's individual nature. Aurelius explains that attachment to one part of it over another is on par with doing service to another person and then expecting to be thanked for it.
The problem with being disappointed or setting up an expectation of reward is parallel to the problem of being attached to rest more than to work, or vice versa, or to being overly concerned with eating and drinking to the exclusion of other activities. In a similar fashion, placing either body or soul as more important than the other makes it difficult to recognize the dichotomy of body and soul without undue attachment to either. To that end, Aurelius suggests that if prayers are offered to a divinity, such prayers should be simple, straightforward, and with an acknowledgement that nature dictates both.
Step 7: Meditations - THE SIXTH BOOK
The opening statement in Book 6 suggests that the perfection of the universe unfolds over time and holds no evil or malice whatsoever. Aurelius augments this perspective by giving a number of examples that explore the passing nature of sensation. He draws these examples from nature, occupations from emperors to laborers, and daily activities, such as eating. Ordinary people are distracted by the appearances of things, and allow themselves to be influenced by superficial attributes that cause them to either praise or condemn others. Aurelius finds it curious that these people spend so much time and energy trying to figure out what others think of them, when it is insignificant. All that matters is what the individual thinks of himself. This perspective touches on skepticism, since the ultimate nature of the universe cannot be determined.
"We are all working together to one end," Aurelius says, and each man does his own part. Furthermore, what is good for one man is also good for others. Ultimately Aurelius returns to the idea that even the greatest of men die; what is important is to live in truth and justice and to consider the virtues of the living.
Step 8: Meditations - THE SEVENTH BOOK
In this book Aurelius gets down to the "brass tacks" of philosophical discussion and its application to the struggles of daily life. He outlines three critical disciplines: that of the will, action, and perception. He proposes a series of questions with statements of insight from pertinent philosophers specific to his understanding. Beneath the discussion, however, is another reminder that regardless of esteem, wealth, or accomplishments of any kind, everyone dies and is forgotten. It is immaterial whether "the nature of All" moves in continuity or whether there is no ultimate rationality of action. A person must attend to duty with an attitude of love and forgiveness for its own sake, and not because a reward of praise or gratitude is expected.
Step 9: Meditations - THE EIGHTH BOOK
Book 8 begins with Aurelius attempting to identify his reasons for feeling disturbed by external impressions, and finding a degree of resolution by discovering "what is fit and useful." The idea is that this exercise helps put aside the desire for fame and wealth that is impressive to the masses for only a brief period of time. While only a few men have the destiny to become a Caesar or an Alexander and rule the world, all men, regardless of their station in life, have access to the disciplines of philosophical perspective of the most noted philosophers. Aurelius speculates on the control power and influence have over those who appear to wield it. In contrast, a simplicity of life and contentment with what is needed to sustain life while it lasts places a person in perfect control of himself. Within its own domain, he says, nobody can frustrate the mind. He quotes the philosopher Empledocles to support this thought: "The globe, once orbed and true, remains a sphere."
The interconnected concerns of individual and social life are one and the same. Be willing to show others the error of their ways with humility, Aurelius says; and at the same time, take what is valuable from the advice of others. Do not blame others.
An attachment to all that is temporary and subject to change means there is no way to avoid what is not wanted, just as there is no way to keep what is wanted. Knowing one's own nature and how to act on it is crucial to maintaining an even balance. Since everything exists for a reason, reason sustains the oppositions of certainty and uncertainty by establishing a middle ground.
Step 10: Meditations - THE NINTH BOOK
Aurelius says the wise adopt a policy of neutrality that can exist only between the opposites of pain and pleasure. The discipline is one of perception. To exercise it conscientiously requires neither desiring nor avoiding these opposites. The same relationship exists between other kinds of opposites, and an understanding of how this works leads to a sustainable state of tranquility based on reason. Failing to exercise this discernment is a sin: "It is a sin to pursue pleasure as a good and to avoid pain as an evil." Continuing his discussion of sin, he states that the sinner sins against himself through the things he does and those he fails to do.
In this book Aurelius also touches on the cyclical nature of the universe; the idea that all that has happened will happen again, or that all living beings experience a kind of constant flow of change which, is ultimately unchangeable.
Step 11: Meditations - THE TENTH BOOK
In Book 10 Aurelius first reminds himself to be attentively aware of the distinctions between the needs of his soul, which are simple, direct, and good, and the wants of an ever-restless and discontented body. To this end, he appeals to a sense of his own nature in a "whatever doesn't kill you only makes you stronger" approach. He expands on the issue of nature and its inevitable unfolding through his life. Nature affects him as an individual, and also acts upon the "community with gods and men." This line of discussion provides him with a neutrality that does not waste energy in finding fault and condemnation on a personal or social level.
Much of Aurelius's thought in this book is centered on the intertwined relationships between the part and the whole. He refers to the incorporation of body and soul as similar to the relationship between the individual and the community to which he belongs, and of which he is an indelible part. He also draws upon concrete examples of people, places, and things to illustrate the principles of sensations. The emphasis here is on a duality of condition resolved by the conclusion of life. The final paragraph of Book 10 reflects on his opening statements about body and soul, observing that although the body contains the soul, it is the hidden soul within that "pulls the strings," using the tool of the body to express itself. The implication is that it is more important to understand the soul than to be concerned with the functions of the body.
Step 12: Meditations - THE ELEVENTH BOOK
Aurelius continues his discussion on the relativity of body and soul in Book 11, but shifts his perspective toward reality and illusion to make his point. To this end, he proceeds to examine the properties of "the rational soul," by which it recognizes, understands, and thereby "owns" itself as its only true and enduring property. This ownership makes it possible to perceive the universe as not only orderly and systematic but also cyclic. The idea brings forward an understanding that nothing new ever happens in the universe, and that, although one's own experiences are new to oneself, they are not unique. Aurelius says, "Happy [is] the soul" that accepts death as inevitable. However, unlike the Christians, a person must accept death "without heroics."
Having opened the discussion in this way, Aurelius continues to examine the art of the self. He discusses why one man may have a false sense of separation from the community of which he is an integral part. Just as art mimics life, he reasons, so too does the artifice of appearances mimic the true nature of a person. He goes on to assert that words are one thing, but the genuine scale of a person's worth is balanced in actions.
Aurelius also outlines the nine considerations to bring into play when someone offends another person. They are:
- to remember the common bond among all people
- to consider reputation, the kind of person the offender is
- to remember that wrong-doing is often a matter of ignorance
- to remember that one's own self also offends
- to be aware that all the circumstances leading to the offense may not be known
- to remember how brief life is
- to know that a discipline of perception makes one realize that it is not the person who has offended one, but only one's perception of the offense
- to remember that being angry does harm to a person
- to rest assured that a genuinely good disposition is an invincible shield from any harm
The implication is that no one can harm a person's soul unless the person allows it to happen, even though harm to the body may occur.
Step 13: Meditations - THE TWELFTH BOOK
In Book 12 Aurelius returns to the idea that the best course of action in time and space is to remember death can come at any time. He urges himself to shake free of both past regrets or nostalgia and the fearful anticipation of an uncertain future. He seems hopeful that the universe is ordered and reasoned according to divine plan, and whether or not that plan is in part or whole understood is beside the point—the perspective of humans is necessarily limited. The left hand is practiced in holding the bridle of a horse, even though it does not do well in other tasks. And in management of principles, Aurelius says, follow the example of the boxer and not the swordsman. One can put down a sword but always has one's hands.
Whether ordered or disordered, Providence can take away only the poor flesh and the poor breath—never a person's intelligence. If he practices using his intelligence every day of his life, it will strengthen beyond life itself. The conclusion of this last book presents the idea that death comes at the right time regardless of the length of one's life, and when it does come, a satisfied God releases a person's very essence from those appearances.