Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Emperors, wrote one of the final classical books of stoicism. The Greek title, Ta Eis Heauton, simply means “To Himself”. Someone, somewhere, sometime used “Meditations” as the title, and it stuck.
Meditations is essentially a notebook of the Roman Emperor. It is divided in 12 short books that correspond to different periods of his life. The entire work can be read in one weekend.
Despite the translation, I believe that Marcus Aurelius wrote a simple prose, neither pompous nor convoluted. He was simply jotting down thoughts about the principles for a good and virtuous life, as he reflected on his experiences.
Several themes recur throughout the book, as is natural when attempting to distill truth from contemplating life. Here are some:
- Maintain a cheerful or undisturbed disposition under ill-health, affronts, or misfortunes
- Understand that our reactions to external events and the meaning we ascribe to objects, intentions, experiences are under our control
- Think carefully and identify what is and what is not under our control; focus our attention and action on what we can control
- Be observant when approaching situations: understand cause, matter, purpose, and duration before disappearance
- Realize that our life span is an instant and our land a speck in the infinity of time and the vastness of the universe; no one will remember you (“All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain“)
- Don’t fear or resist death; “Pass on your way, then, with a smiling face, under the smile of him who bids you go.”
Note of caution
Choose a good translation. A clean, simple, and unpretentious translation. My edition is from Folio Society, my publisher of choice (they make the most beautiful books). However, their translation was not the friendliest: there were passages where I thought I was reading a legal contract.