Stoicism is vague. Everyone seems to be talking about it, so I started investigating. First I simply Googled “what is stoicism?”
The answer: the endurance of pain or hardship without the display of feelings and without complaint.
That certainly hooked me. You know why. Endurance of pain and hardship is my thing. It’s who I am to my core. But while that’s what hooked me, it’s not exactly what reeled me in. Stoicism isn’t just about pain. It’s about a whole new perspective on yourself and on the world. And I can honestly say that I haven’t encountered anything since maybe the birth of my first child, that has so fundamentally changed my thought process.
Last year I started reading a bunch of books that were basically summaries and explanations of stoicism. I also started reading Seneca. But I didn’t dive into individual Stoic thinkers like Marcus Aurelius for the simple reason that they are so dense. You cannot breeze through these books. In fact, you can barely read a full page at a time. Reading each line is something you have to think on for an entire day. Perhaps that’s why this book is titled “Meditations.”
Just a few of those meditations:
“At dawn of day, when you dislike being called, have this thought ready: ‘I am called to man’s labour; why then do I make a difficulty if I am going out to do what I was born to do and what I was brought into the world for? Is it for this that I am fashioned, to lie in bedclothes and keep myself warm?’ ‘But this is more pleasant.’ ‘Were you born then to please yourself; in fact for feeling, not for action? Can’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees each doing his own work, helping for their part to adjust a world? And then you refuse to do a man’s office and don’t make haste to do what is according to your own nature.’ ‘But a man needs rest as well.’ I agree, he does, yet Nature assigns limits to rest, as well as to eating and drinking, and you nevertheless go beyond her limits, beyond what is sufficient; in your actions only this is no longer so, there you keep inside what is in your power. The explanation is that you do not love your own self, else surely you would love both your nature and her purpose. But other men who love their own crafts wear themselves out in labours upon them, unwashed and unfed; while you hold your own nature in less honour than the smith his metal work, the dancer his art, the miser his coin, the lover of vainglory his fame. Yet they, when the passion is on them, refuse either to eat or to sleep sooner than refuse to advance the objects they care about, whereas you imagine acts of fellowship to bring a smaller return and to be deserving of less pains.”
“The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.”
“Some things are hurrying into existence and others are hurrying out of it and of that which is coming into existence, part is already extinguished. In this flowing stream then, on which there is no abiding, what is there of things which hurry on by on which a man would set a high price. It would be just as if a man should fall in love with one of the sparrows which fly by but has already passed out of sight.”
“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.”
“The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
“Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.”
“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”
“I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.”
“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 and 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 unnatural.”
“Keep this thought handy when you feel a fit of rage coming on—it isn’t manly to be enraged. Rather, gentleness and civility are more human, and therefore manlier. A real man doesn’t give way to anger and discontent, and such a person has strength, courage, and endurance—unlike the angry and complaining. The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.”
“No, you do not have thousands of years to live. Urgency is on you. While you live, while you can, become good.”
I could go on all day. In fact, I could just publish the whole book here. Every line is that important.
This wasn’t a book Marcus Aurelius wrote for the world. These are meditations that he wrote to himself. These are directions from him to him. I’ve taken them as directions to me too.
I cannot possibly recommend this book enough. If taken to heart and meditated on, this book could change the core of who you are. While I am not yet a Stoic and certainly not an Emperor or a philosopher, I will be diving deeper into these teachings throughout the year in an attempt to become a better and happier man.