book: Meditations
author: Marcus Aurelius

general overview

Meditations is the personal journal of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who ruled for twenty years in the late first century AD. there is no evidence that he ever wished to release the book or have it read by anyone but himself.

the insight it contains, however, makes it a valuable read for anyone. during his life, Marcus Aurelius was the most powerful man in the world, and was universally celebrated as a virtuous, sympathetic, and kind person. yet the problems he describes facing are the same ones we all face today.

the true value of the book is in how Aurelius presents the problems he faces, and what his solutions are.

if you ever thought, “if I only had more money, my life would be so much easier,” Meditations will absolutely refute that idea.

if you ever looked up to a boss, mentor, or leader and said, “i bet he has it so much easier than i do”, Meditations will show you why that’s not the case.

and if you ever find yourself in a difficult place in life, unsure of what to do or how to respond to things falling apart around you, and there is only one book you can keep by your side to get you through it, make it Meditations.

what this book isn’t

this isn’t an autobiography or a life-coaching book. Marcus Aurelius doesn’t tell us how to solve life’s problems or achieve success. in fact, he doesn’t tell us to do anything at all. he’s telling himself what he thinks he needs to know in order to face the problems he confronts.

while that separates this from the usual tropes of the “self-help” genre, in another way it also makes this the purest example of what a “self-help” book really is.

summary notes

in Meditations, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius writes to himself in a sincere, unflattering tone. he constantly tells himself to be more humble, patient, generous, and strong in the face of whatever life is throwing his way.

most of the book is centered around bits of actionable advice Marcus gives himself in response to life’s quandaries and troubles. almost everything he says resonates clearly through millennia to the kinds of issues we face today:

  • there are things you can control, and things you can’t. knowing the distinction between things that are within your capacity to control and things that aren’t is key to living a good life. worrying about the things you can’t control only takes energy away from working on the things you can.
  • the evil that other people inflict only truly harms you if you do evil in response. Marcus Aurelius believed that painful things don’t cause suffering by themselves, but by the way we respond to them. he saw lying, cheating, and stealing as things that people do because they don’t know the difference between good and evil. he constantly reminded himself that other peoples’ evil should not provoke himself to lower his standards, regardless of how tempting the tit-for-tat response might be.
  • fame, glory, and praise are not worth pursuing. As a war hero, and widely celebrated political leader, you would expect Marcus Aurelius to revel in the praise he often received from others. instead, he saw those things as distractions from the real goal of life – doing good for its own sake. for Aurelius, following any other motivation was bound to result in deep-seated internal suffering, because fame, wealth, and praise only lead to the desire for more fame, more wealth, and more praise.
  • death is something you have to accept. Marcus Aurelius speaks strongly about accepting the inevitability of death and keeping that realization close at hand. he demonstrates that a great deal of human suffering comes from people absurdly assuming (or just acting like) they will live forever. he sees this as a good reason to never complain about life – it’s too short to bother.
  • there are no problems, only solutions. Marcus Aurelius sees every problem as an opportunity to practice some kind of virtue. most of the pain people suffer happens only because they choose not to accept reality for what it is. once you achieve this, you can accept every injustice without complaint and address it by applying the appropriate virtue in yourself in response.

unlike your average ancient philosophy book, Meditations is elegantly simple and easy to read. it establishes a clear and uncontroversial way to live a good life according to the doctrines of Stoicism, by taking control of your rational mind and using it to improve your life, regardless of how hard the outside world may treat you.