“Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.”
— Marcus Aurelius
They look just like us.
They work the same jobs.
They face the same conflicts; the same difficulties.
They live with the same awareness that one day they will die.
They don’t wear a uniform. They resemble no stereotype.
They are the stoics among us, and they are identifiable only by their character.
We know who they are only by the example they set for the rest of us when they face hardships with clear-headedness and equanimity.
Their concern is not with wealth, fame, or status — but with virtue itself.
The single most important practice in stoic philosophy is differentiating between what we can change and what we cannot, and Marcus’ notes to himself in the Meditations can be taken as his effort to live out his own life truly and rightly.
He ruled the Roman Empire for 19 years, between 161 and 180 AD. During that time he faced civil war, declining health, the unfaithfulness of his wife, and the constant threat of invasion from the north.
Marcus Aurelius dude was the real deal.
Wars between Rome and the Parthian Empire didn’t get him down.
A massive plague across the empire? Even that failed to faze him.
The rise of Christianity and all the instability that engendered? Hardly made him lose sleep at night.
Meditations is the private notebook of the one of the wisest, most virtuous, strongest-willed leaders to ever grace the earth. Many of our contemporary politicians can’t hold a proverbial candle to this guy.
Marcus never intended for these entries to be published; they were for his own benefit. They were his constant companion as he battled temptation, sloth, and cowardice within himself on a daily and hourly basis.
It is, to many, the definitive text on self-discipline, personal ethics, humility, self-actualization, and strength. I hope that it will come to inspire you as much as it has inspired myself and countless others too numerous to name to embrace stoic philosophy.
Above all, I want you to realize what kind of a situation we’re all in. As a species, we fight to survive on a planet which is, at best, indifferent to our survival.
To be alive on this planet is to be besieged daily by ethical quandaries, personal struggles, devastating catastrophes, crippling self-doubt, the apprehension of death, and the mostly unconscious realization that life entails eventually losing everything and everyone you love most.
Life provides opportunities for both unrestrained joy and immeasurable sadness. Part of the bargain of being alive is that you will come face to face with dangers which threaten your survival and happiness.
Below, I survey just a few of them, and provide a direct quote from Meditations related to those threats.
Meditations is, at bottom, Marcus Aurelius’ exhortation that you get active in your own rescue — if you care for yourself at all — and do it while you still can.
#1: “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.”
We begin with perhaps one of the most famous passages from Meditations, here Marcus is mentally preparing himself to deal with the wide array of irksome characters one was bound to meet in the course of daily life in Rome, and whom we still run into today as these same character types persist to this very day.
You should also know that we can prepare ourselves in advance to meet them as well. Not with rancor or derision, but with understanding and gentleness.
The real insight here is that these people whom you will run into (and you can’t possibly hope to avoid them for your entire life, except in the remotest solitude), have no control over your own thoughts and actions.
You are giving up your power if you allow their behaviors to negatively impact your emotional state.
You are responsible for your own emotions. Nobody else is. And the same holds true for all others you meet.
Handing over your own personal power to another is something a stoic would never ever do.
#2: “Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed, and you haven’t been.”
Our power over our own mind and our power to make our own decisions can’t be broken — only relinquished.
If you don’t feel slighted by the insensitive remarks of another, have you been?
If you don’t identify with the image of yourself that another person is supposedly attacking, do their words mean anything to you?
To a stoic, nothing has any value outside of our own reasoned choice about what it means to us.
This is a modern day superpower.
If your opinion of yourself means more to you than other’s opinions of you, you won’t feel the degradation if someone disagrees.
A stoic who knows his own values and has a strong internal frame won’t be easily distressed by external feedback.
#3: “As an antidote to battle unkindness we were given kindness.”
Ask yourself each day: How many unkind people have I been kind to?
Both kindness and unkindness perpetuate themselves to the degree to which they are employed, and this response again falls under your own control.
No one else can tell you to respond with kindness or unkindness; this is a decision that you have to make for yourself.
You’ll find that responding with kindness is disarming; rude people aren’t expecting it.
Probably, they won’t even know what to do next, since their expectation is for you to respond in a similar way.
When you disrupt their pattern, you take away their power.
#4: “There have to be shameless people in the world. This person in front of you might just one of them…Remembering that a whole class must necessarily exist will enable you to tolerate its members.”
We have words to describe rude behavior because some people act that way sometimes.
Television, books, and movies resonate with us because we can see the characters they depict in our daily lives, in the same way that they do on the screen or on the page.
These people are out there. That’s just the way it is.
There have to be people like that who exist.
So we shouldn’t be too surprised when we encounter some of those people in our daily lives.
In fact, we should expect it, and in that way, lessen the negative impact that they can have on our mental equilibrium.
When you expect to run into people whom you may not like, you can relax some of your bitterness and take away some of their power over you before they even cross your path.
A word of warning: Because things are rarely that simple, self-fulfilling prophecy theories of social interactions state that people often behave as we expect them to, and we respond to them in ways that mirror what we believe to be true about them.
So don’t go around expecting everyone to be total jerks, or else they’re probably going to seem that way to you!
Instead, expect that you might run into someone unpleasant, and resolve to not let them draw you into their frame.
#5: “To do harm is to do yourself harm. To do an injustice is to do yourself an injustice. It degrades you…You can also commit injustice by doing nothing.”
Negative and hurtful actions degrade you as a person. Have you no shame to participate in them?
That’s what Marcus is asking himself here. Self-respect is inextricably bound up with respect for others, and actions that humiliate someone else end up humiliating you both.
Self-respect is probably one of the only forms of respect that really matters in this world, yet too many of us simply throw it away, for fame, money, or validation.
An important realization here is that when you respect yourself, the natural outgrowth of this is that you’re going to begin (or continue) respecting others.
Their suffering becomes your suffering, and to do nothing when others are suffering also becomes a stain on your character.
#6: “People exist for one another. You can instruct or endure them.”
What are we here for if not to make life a little less difficult for each other?
“Every person you have ever met, every person you will pass in the street today, is going to die. Living long enough, each will suffer the loss of his friends and family. All are going to lose everything they love in this world. Why would one want to be anything but kind to them in the meantime?”
Can you see the ridiculous situation that we’re all in? The trap of existence that we can never hope to escape?
Facing unafraid the absurdity of existence, a Stoic finds the strength and inner calm necessary to endure and to respect their fellow human beings.
#7: “It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. Just try and escape your own.”
Want to drive yourself crazy? Try to fix everyone around you. Try to make them so perfect that they can’t annoy you in any way whatsoever. Make them so morally perfect and righteous that they will always make the right decision and will go out of their way to help you.
Or, if you prefer to keep things simple, rigidly examine your own shortcomings and biases. Correct your own faults first.
Trying to escape your own faults will take a lifetime.
#8: “The only thing that isn’t worthless: to live this life out truthfully and rightly. And be patient with those who don’t.”
Being a good person is notoriously difficult.
What does this have to do with others?
Other people are doing the best they know how to do as well.
Other people’s choices are their own and that needs to be respected, no matter how difficult.
When they don’t conform to your expectations, consider it an opportunity to practice patience, and respect them anyway.
Of course, this is a nuanced point. Some individuals are directly responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses on the planet. No one would suggest that we just “respect their choice.”
But when you cultivate the understanding that all people are flawed and sometimes act reprehensibly, you can instead divert your focus to what really matters: your own reasoned choice.
#9: “Is it your reputation that is bothering you? But look at how soon we’re all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that swallows all. The emptiness of all those applauding hands.”
This is perhaps my favorite quote from the entire book, and it’s one that instantly comes to mind whenever I think of Meditations and stoic philosophy in general. Mentally, I see the disembodied hands of a faceless crowd that I don’t care about, set against the deepest, darkest blackness of space that I can imagine.
Here, Marcus draws your attention to the inevitability of your own death, and with haunting imagery alludes to the fact that all our efforts and achievements will slip away into nothingness.
But the question remains…is this a negative statement?
I don’t believe that beauty and impermanence are mutually exclusive. The fact that something is ephemeral doesn’t subtract from its beauty; quite possibly it’s actually an addition.
You can pursue what’s meaningful to you passionately and obsessively, without giving a proverbial damn about all those applauding hands.
#10: “People who are excited by posthumous fame forget that those who remember them will soon die too.”
Whether you amass a fortune of a hundred million dollars or mow the lawn of the people who do, at the end, death will be a radical equalizer – a lesson in abject humility.
Everyone who will be around to “remember you” will be dead soon, and everyone who will be around to remember the people who will remember you will also one day no longer roam this earth.
This insight leads to a more stable source of our own equanimity and personal power. We can cultivate something more substantial, like existential courage, as opposed to ephemeral wealth and fame.
External things can’t fix internal issues and it’s astonishing how often the rich look just like the poor. The only problems that money can solve are money problems.
Said differently, that same crushing guilt and anxiety plague the richest among us just as much as the poorest.
Instead of all this foolishness, Marcus would ask: “Do you want a great empire? Rule over yourself!”
#11: “Keep before your eyes all those that experienced it before you, and felt shock and outrage and resentment at it. Where are they now? Nowhere.”
Clearly, an awareness of the inevitability of death pervades much of stoic thought. We’re called to realize that many of the same frustrations and setbacks have been experienced by many others, and that now…well they’re dead, and we will be soon.
It all comes back to properly evaluating our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions.
It’s funny: We can be very concerned about finding out whether or not a hundred dollar bill is real, but we accept believes and their implied assumptions without properly evaluating them.
We rarely stop to ask, “Is this thought true?”
Especially with respect to career setbacks and financial difficulties, we need to evaluate whether we have actually suffered as much of a setback as we think we have. Maybe, just maybe, our financial struggles aren’t as overwhelming as we think they are.
If you don’t know exactly how much money you need, then the default setting just becomes “I need more”.
In reality, your actual needs are very small.
You were fine when you had less.
In the end, nothing can satisfy greed, but only a small measure satisfies nature.
#12: “Nowhere you can go is more peaceful, more free of interruptions, than your own soul…Retreat to consult your own soul and then return to face what awaits you.”
In stoic thought, the soul is often referred to as “the inner citadel.”
Just like in meditation, when there is nowhere to go, nothing to achieve, and nothing to do, your inner citadel is an unassailable bastion of peace and tranquility. And it often contains the answer, if you take the time to look for it there.
A similarly helpful image is that of a deep lake. Whatever is happening on the surface, the water at the bottom of a deep lake is very, very still.
Your mind can be like the bottom of a deep lake, and like the inner sanctum of a citadel, or you can let it be tossed and turned by external events and difficulties. Stoic philosophy is your constant companion while you are building your own inner citadel.
The option to retreat inwards, find the answer, and re-emerge stronger is always open to you.
#13: “Is a world without pain possible? Then don’t ask the impossible.”
Aristotle once gave a road-map to follow if one wanted to have no critics at all. He basically said “Do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.”
Such is life.
Is it possible to never suffer any sort of pain or hardship for as long as you live?
Once you stop asking the impossible, you start getting down to work on the possible.
It’s actually a lot easier when you stop asking for the impossible. It’s much more simple. You know the terrain. You know what to expect.
Do you see how few things you actually have to do in order to live a satisfying and reverent life?
#14: “Ask: What is so unbearable about this situation? Why can’t you endure it? You will be embarrassed to answer.”
I literally ask myself these questions almost every single day when faced with something difficult or something that I’m not in the mood for.
I keep a list of such questions that I ask of myself each and every day.
How hard have you pushed yourself?
What is the simplest first action I can take?
What can I do to get myself motivated right now?
What exactly do I think is going to be so difficult?
When are you going to get serious?
So I can attest to the truth of the embarrassment I feel within myself when I ask myself what’s so difficult about my current situation.
Inevitably, I’ll come to realize that I’ve made much ado about nothing, and that I’m far stronger than I thought I was. I just needed a way to remind myself of my own strength.
#15: “After death there is no “us” to suffer harm.”
Stoicism shares something with Epicureanism, and that’s the dismissal of death as a cause for alarm or distress.
The idea that they share is that when you are alive, death is absent. And when death comes, you are absent. Thus, death cannot inflict any lasting harm.
Marcus Aurelius would agree, and he states that death contains within it the end of fear.
Death means the end of the fear of death.
When you’re dead, you’ll have nothing to worry about. You’ll be alright.
So you see, the end of the fear of death is also within you. It’s contained within your patterns of thinking, and just like your own power of reasoned choice, it is available to you in every moment.
#16: “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do, say, and think.”
There is absolutely, 100% no guarantee that you will live to read the end of this sentence. Alright, you made it…but maybe not the next sentence! Who knows these things?
Everything is ephemeral.
The unique ability of human beings to project themselves into the future means being able to conceive of a future in which they will no longer be around. This future is what you need to concern yourself with today. Or, rather, it should influence what you do, say, and think.
There is no more time.
Let this realization shake you up. Let it bring to the front of your mind things like the truth that people are more important than things.
Your loved ones aren’t your possessions, but instead people who you are fortunate enough to know and love for a short time.
Thoughts like these should guide your speech, thought, and actions.
#17: “Accept death in a cheerful spirit, as nothing but the dissolution of the elements from which each living thing is composed. If it doesn’t hurt the individual elements to change continually into one another, why are people afraid of all of them changing and separating? It’s a natural thing. And nothing natural is evil.”
You will vanish into what produced you. That much is clear.
“What you do is something that the whole universe is doing, in the same way that a wave is something that the whole ocean is doing.”
I feel like Aurelius and Watts would have been good friends.
This particular constitution of elements can’t exist forever, and thus, you won’t exist forever AS ‘you’.
But who’s to say whether a single, blissfully happy experience is worth all the suffering and sadness that life necessarily implies?
Having wisdom or happiness for a single moment is the same as having it forever.
#18: “Nature first invited you in and then sends you away. Before long, darkness…Make your exit with grace. The same grace shown to you.”
Our greatest asset at the moment of our eventual death is our calm and reasoned mind.
Because, you know, before long you’ll be no one, nowhere.
What Marcus Aurelius really wants to hammer home is the fact that your reaction to the event of your own death is entirely under your own power.
The natural order of things is that things come into existence and then they pass into nothingness.
What is it to die?
It is to return to the elements, to continue as a part of the whole but in a different constitution.
Thus the components of our substance exist for ever, coeval with the universe, made in the stars and in an endless dance with other elements, constituted and reconstituted throughout time by nature’s laws.
Though we cease as we now are, what we are never ceases.
ASSORTED BITS OF DAMN GOOD ADVICE
#19: “At some point you have to recognize what world it is that you belong to; what power rules it and from what source you spring; that there is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.”
Whenever I quote Meditations, inevitably I’ll return again and again to this phenomenal passage.
What we do now, Marcus says, echoes in eternity. We are always being tested by life, being asked how badly we want what we say we want, and asked how we believe human beings should live.
Our lives are our answers to these questions that life is asking us.
But, obviously, we face a time limit during which to give our answer. We can’t delay, and we can’t pass the question off to anyone else.
How often are we even aware that our time is running out?
Time can be likened to a credit card, in that it’s easy to keep spending and spending, until you get your statement at the end of the month and you see that you don’t have anything left. We keep spending our time on trivialities, and then at the end of our lives, we get our statement.
Practicing stoic philosophy means asking: “What will your statement look like?”
#20: “Do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life.”
As they say, the person who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.
Because which other day can you live besides this one?
The past doesn’t exist any more, the future will never exist, and so that means that all we have is right now.
We don’t have any control over yesterday, tomorrow, or even anything at all that is external to us.
Lack of control with respect to externals is actually good because it drastically reduces the number of things that you have to think about.
The only thing you have to think about is this very moment that you’re living now. All you have to do is the action that you’re doing now.
And of course, sometime soon you’ll be “nowhere.”
Don’t let any day pass by without the awareness that you are a dying person.
#21: “If it’s endurable, then endure it. If it’s not endurable, then stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well.”
I’m not sure I can identify a single day or moment when my life changed completely and moved in a particular direction.
But if I had to point to one of them, it would be the first time I saw a kid close to my own age (24 at that time) literally starving to death by the side of road.
I was living in the mountains of India, working on behalf of Human Rights Watch, and I drove by this teenager who was probably 50 lbs underweight, crawling along the ground, weak from hunger.
I think about that kid a lot, especially at times when the guy at the drive-through window messes up my order. Or when I come back to my car and see a parking ticket on my windshield.
What causes people in “developed” countries become so pathetically weak-willed? When did they start breaking down at the slightest hint of discomfort?
Can we not find a way to endure?
#22: “Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.”
The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. We literally become what we think about.
Understanding this, you see how critically important it is to guard the contents of your mind, and aggressively filter what you let in.
Trust Marcus on this one.
He had a lot of people vying for his attention, and a lot of time-wasters that sought to distract him from his purpose. He understood at a core level just what an important practice this filtering process actually is.
What’s more, no one who acquires wisdom, self-control, justice, or courage ever experiences remorse after having acquired them.
They’re yours for life, if you want them badly enough. If you’re strong enough.
You should know, however, that your mind is untouchable. Thus, in a way, so are you.
STOIC PHILOSOPHY AND MENTAL TOUGHNESS
As mental toughness becomes increasingly rare, it also becomes more valuable.
It’s difficult to even survive in a universe that is indifferent to your existence, and you place yourself at a distinct advantage if cultivate the ability to withstand its storms by practicing stoic philosophy.
I’ve overheard people complain about things that blew my mind:
*Waiting 3 minutes for a donut
*Walking 5 minutes to a working ATM (whence money would subsequently fly out into their hands)
*Suffering through 30-minute delays at the airport
But, as stoics, our business is with things that really matter.
We show ourselves to be stoics by displaying our unflappable character, and our unshakable existential courage in the face of death. We battle these things within ourselves in order to become worthier of even greater challenges. We use what stands before us as fuel for our self-development.
In that sense, what stands in the way becomes the way.
Marcus Aurelius showed us 2,000 years ago that we need not be afraid of death, and that we should, under no circumstances shrink away from life.
The infinity of past and future gapes before us – a chasm whose depths we cannot see. As stoics, our only duty is to maximize each day, face unafraid what has come to destroy us, and help others to become similarly resilient. To help others see the truth of their situation. Like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, truthfulness becomes the highest virtue.
The truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.
It’s disgraceful for the soul to give up while the body is still going strong, and I’m unbelievably grateful to Marcus for advocating this mindset in his life and writing.
Meditations taught generations of now strong-willed individuals that the only rewards of our existence here is an unstained character and selfless acts.
We will face ingratitude. People won’t care what we’ve done for them, people won’t care what we’ve endured. Circumstances will seem to conspire against us, we will endure pain and crushing hardship.
But…why should we feel anger at the world? As if the world would notice!
Never persist in self-deceit, ignorance, or shamefulness. Never wait to become a better person, to improve your life and the lives of others.
Be good, and noble, and impressive now – while it still matters.
In closing, I’d like to mention a certain placard that was placed in the sidewalk leading up to the New York City Public Library. It contains a quote by Marcus Aurelius that is passed by every single day by people who have no idea who he is.
I’m quite sure that he’d be just fine with that.