Last week the stars aligned in odd ways and a spam comment on this blog quoted the very book I had just begun to read. I am a very fast reader, but The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius has proven to be slow going for me. Part of it is that there is no plot arc to propel me through like there would be in a novel. But the main reason I am making such little progress on it is that I constantly have to put it down and contemplate my life. The Meditations are the personal diaries of a philosopher king and they contain a lot to give one pause. I wanted to finish reading them before I wrote about them, but here I am two posts behind schedule on the path to Eleventyone. So with Marcus’s admonishments to do your duty as best you can in the present moment echoing in my mind, I dive in to the Stoic’s work.
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
One major theme Aurelius turns to again and again is that our main sphere of influence, and the place where we should direct the majority of our actions, is within our own minds. He is not the first or the last to make such an argument, but he does so with an earnest simplicity that is rarely matched. There is only so much control that we have on the world around us. Perhaps we have more than ever before, living in climate controlled homes with seemingly the whole planet accessible from the comfort of the couch, but the truth is a storm can come and wash it all away overnight. We could win the lottery or contract a fatal disease tomorrow. And in the day to day, the people we love or the people we work for can do things without asking us that may affect us in ways subtle or profound. Whether we chalk it up to luck or fate, Providence or chaos, things are going to happen to us that we can not control. All we can control is how we react.
“Our life is what our thoughts make it.”
Now it sounds as if our new favorite Roman is an early proponent for The Secret, but what he is saying is the exact opposite. He is not one to believe that if we daydream about something hard enough we can manifest it in reality, he instead argues that we should recognize that we have a severely limited control of reality and should turn our attention to what we can influence. Namely, how we perceive and interpret that reality. Our first task is to perceive the world as it truly is; not as we wish it were or think it should be or told it is. Then we set about adjusting our reaction to that truth, bringing ourselves in alignment with it and accepting it with tranquility. Actually, according to Marcus Aurelius I have that backwards:
“The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.”
For the Stoic the ultimate goal is to cultivate and maintain an inner tranquility, to greet what comes our way with equanimity and peace of mind. Our opinions and emotions cloud our vision and stand between us and reality. There is a reason that we say we “see red” when we are angry, view the world “through rose colored glasses” when we are happy, and call envy the “green eyed monster.” It is as if these emotions were lenses through which we view the world around us. I know that I have to prepare myself and get into the right mindset in order to take constructive criticism on my writing, or anything else for that matter. And when I am upset I can find hurtfulness in an perfectly benign remark. “What do you mean ‘it’s nice out today?’ Are you implying that I should go outside and be productive instead of staying in and typing my gibberish?”
“The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.”
I just found that perfect quote after writing the above, I swear. And this gets at the heart of the matter. Our opinions and emotions do not only color the way we view the world around us, they also color us. In my little joke above about finding offense in a comment about the weather I am acting like a real jerk. Who would want to talk to the person who is always looking for a reason to feel wronged? It sucks to be that guy, but it also sucks to be around that guy.
‘“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
What an empowering sentiment. There are plenty of things to get distressed about if you look around for them. If you need more just turn on the news. And we all know someone who is ready at a moment’s notice to get their blood pressure up yelling about one issue or another. Hell, I’m that guy on certain subjects. But the pain we feel about government policies or current events, even when they impact us personally, can be relieved by a shift in perception. Perhaps things are a little more complicated and nuanced than we are prone to thinking. Maybe we could extend a little more compassion and understanding to the people on the other side of the debate. At the least we would feel a little better, but I would argue that we would actually be a little better too; a little wiser, a little more human. Not to mention, should we choose to reenter the fray, our arguments would be all the stronger as well.
And what if we’ve lost our home and all our possessions in the flood? Surely that is a painful experience. But the waters have receded and the hurt remains. We can dwell on what we have lost or we can focus on what we still have. Maybe we have lost the results of a lifetime of effort, and I do not want to downplay the devastating loss that this truly is, but we still have our lives. Our stuff is gone but we are still here. And perhaps there is some good to find in all of it. Jobs for thousands of workers, the ability to discuss climate change openly, a renewed sense of community, and a better understanding of what is truly important.
“Here is a rule to remember in future, when anything tempts you to feel bitter: not ‘This is misfortune,’ but ‘To bear this worthily is good fortune.’”
This may be simple, but it is not easy. Keep in mind, this quote, and the whole book, is not an effort to transmit wisdom to the ages but one man’s attempt to better himself. It is easy to imagine the Roman Emperor reclining on a day bed in his marble palace, being fed grapes by nubile women in skimpy togas while attendants fan him with palm fronds, but most of The Meditations was written in a war camp at the edge of the territory he was sworn to defend. Marcus Aurelius didn’t even want to be Emperor, he just wanted to read his books and practice philosophy, but he felt that it was his duty to serve and so he did what he thought was right and left his home to march off to war. Here is a man with reason enough to feel bitter, but he instead took the opportunity to work at being the best self he could be and to do his duty with peace of mind.
“It is within our power not to make a judgment about something, and so not disturb our minds; for nothing in itself possesses the power to form our judgments.”
This power is the source of strength in the first line I quoted: “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” We might not be able to change the fact that our boss is a jerk, or the amount we pay in taxes, or our age, (though if you wait long enough you’ll get older,) but what is within our power is how these things affect us, and whether or not we allow them to affect us at all. Sure, we can get a new job or move to a state with lower taxes or search for the fountain of youth, but right now in this moment the main thing we control, perhaps the only thing in our control, is our judgment. Ultimately, there will always be something to bother us if we let it. And we will always have the power to content ourselves with the present moment.
There is much more in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations worth examing, but for now I leave you with two final quotes:
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”
“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.”