“Marcus Aurelius had a vision for Rome, and this is NOT IT!” Thus thundered Maximus in the well-known movie Gladiator. It’s also something I said to my wife repeatedly over the course of several weeks, each time I got up from reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. It’s not that I thought that quote was particularly insightful. It just kept coming into my mind, so I said it out loud!
Gladiator is the reason most people know about Marcus Aurelius, but Marcus Aurelius has been famous for a long time because of his life and because of his book Meditations. Meditations is in essence a self-help book that people still read 1,800 years after publication. And there’s a reason for that–it is helpful!
Marcus Aurelius wrote these meditations while defending the Roman Empire’s borders against its numerous enemies. The book is a series of self-contained paragraphs that were based on what Aurelius had learned in Stoic philosophy. Each paragraph contains one idea or thought to enable him or the reader to see things differently and so live in peace with the world as it is and not as he would like it to be.
His basic thesis is “If you are pained about any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it.” Frustration is what you bring to the table, and, he often adds, it is in your power to judge the situation differently. Meditations is a book that teaches you how to judge situations differently so you can reduce frustration and anger and enjoy tranquility.
Here are a few examples.
What do we think when things go badly? “Remember, too, on every occasion that leads you to vexation to apply this principle: not that this is a misfortune, but that to bear it nobly is good fortune” (4.49).
What if we have to get up early? “In the morning when you rise unwillingly, let this thought be present. I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going into the world for things for which I exist and for which I was brought into this world?” (5.1).
What if I don’t like where I live? “[W]here a man can live, there he can live well” (5.16).
What if I can’t get away and go on vacation? “Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, seashores, and mountains; and you, too, are wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in your power whenever you choose to retire into yourself. . . . tranquility is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind” (4.3).
One thing I found particularly insightful was the idea that human beings are social animals. “For we are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth” (2.1). Humans are made to work together. Consequently, “[t]o act against one another then is contrary to nature and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away” (ibid.). One of Marcus Aurelius’ constant themes is that those who act against others act contrary to their social nature and thus harm themselves.
An important corollary of the social nature of human beings is that when someone acts against us, they cannot do us harm because we can still act in kindness toward them in accordance with our own nature. This does not mean that we should not try to teach them, but when they do not accept correction, we must bear with them. This is what our nature requires.
Similarly, to do good to and love others is natural to us. Consequently, to love or do good is its own reward. As Marcus Aurelius writes, “Have I done something for the general interest? Well, then, I have had my reward. Let this always be present to your mind and never stop doing such good” (11.4). If we viewed things this way, we would be less concerned with whether or not others appreciate what we have done.
One thing that regularly frustrates me is other drivers. So, I have made it my resolution to seek to let others drive how they want and not let it change my emotions.
The other day, I was waiting to pull up to a gas pump. I could not line up directly behind the car at the pump, and so I parked a little bit to the side. As soon as the car at the pump pulled out, another driver darted in and took my spot.
My first thought was, “What a jerk!”
Then, I remembered Marcus Aurelius. I realized, the driver either did not know I was waiting, or he did. If he didn’t know, then it was a mistake, and there was no reason for me to be angry. If he did know, then he only harmed himself by acting contrary to his social nature. Having to wait a few seconds for another pump did me no harm. Besides, who knows what priorities, hurry, or difficulties this driver might be experiencing that day?
A few seconds later, I pulled up to another pump, filled up my tank, and left the gas station . . . with a pleasant tranquility.