"The second step: Concentrate on what you have to do. Fix your eyes on it. Remind yourself that your task is to be a good human being… Then do it, without hesitation, and speak the truth as you see it. But with kindness. With humility. Without hypocrisy."
Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD) was a Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD. He is known as the last of the Five Good Emperors and is considered one of the most important Stoic philosophers. His book, Meditations, was written as a personal guidebook to answer some of the greatest questions of life. Why are we here? How should we live our lives? How should we ensure that we do what is right?
Meditations is a popular book read by leaders in business, politics, sports, and many other fields. The lessons, even after almost 2000 years, are still applicable to the challenges that we face today. Aurelius shares his take on a wide range of topics including the importance of humility, the transient nature of human life, and how our mission as people is to help each other. Although I am an amateur when it comes to Greek and Roman philosophy, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Meditations and found the lessons highly applicable to my life.
If you haven’t already read Meditations, I would recommend putting it on your list soon. I specifically recommend the translation by Gregory Hayes as it does a fantastic job making it accessible for modern readers.
The Big Idea
Exercise control of your perceptions
"Choose not to be harmed – and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed - and you haven’t been."
According to Stoic philosophy, it is not the objects or events in our lives that are the problem; rather, it is our perception of the events that cause the issues. When the objects and events around us reach our faculty of perception, they can be misinterpreted by our mind based on our previous experiences or biases. Meditations is a book largely focused on Marcus Aurelius’s attempts to exercise stringent control over his faculty of perception. In his first entry in Book Two, he openly admits that, “The people I deal with today will be meddling, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly.” But he also asserts that “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.” He shifts his perception by explaining to himself that we are all human, having been born into the world the same way, and to feel anger towards another person is in itself unnatural.
Early in my career, I was passed over for a promotion. At that time, the event felt like a disaster to me. I was disappointed in myself, in my manager, and in the company that I worked for. Sadly, I never regained my footing in the organization again and left a few years later. What if I had looked at that situation differently? What if I didn’t take it so personally and looked at it as an opportunity to improve or as a fresh start? Being able to detach oneself from the objects and events around us can turn a challenge into an opportunity. It’s not easy but we owe it to ourselves to exercise stringent control over our perception.
Keep your mind clear
"People find pleasure in different ways. I find it in keeping my mind clear. In not turning away from people or the things that happen to them. In accepting and welcoming everything I see. In treating each thing as it deserves."
In order control our perceptions, we first need to be able to objectively see what is happening around us. The key to this is ensuring your mind is clear. Marcus Aurelius compares having a sound mind to having healthy eyes. If you have healthy eyes, they should be able to see everything and distinguish between the many different colours they are exposed to. According to Aurelius, a mind “that keeps saying, ‘Are my children all right?’ or ‘Everyone must approve of me’ is like eyes that can only stand pale colours, or teeth that can handle only mush.” A mind that is healthy and clear is one that handles emotional responses and maintains objectivity at all times.
So what are some tactical ways to do that? Personally, I enjoy the practice of meditation and daily journaling. Meditation helps me realize that as chaotic a day can become, I still have the power within me to find stillness and calm. Daily journaling also allows me to put down the jumbled thoughts and feelings in my head onto a piece of paper. Seeing these thoughts and feelings on paper allows me to assess them objectively and reduce their power over me, especially if they are negative feelings or thoughts. In a way, Aurelius’s entries into Meditations was likely a method for him to process his thoughts and maintain objectivity.
So keep your mind clear. And as the Zen saying goes, keep your “mind like water”. Open, flexible, and resilient.
Take personal responsibility
"If they’ve made a mistake, correct them gently and show them where they went wrong. If you can’t do that, then the blame lies with you. Or no one."
As the Emperor of the largest empire in the world, Marcus Aurelius must have dealt with a variety of people from the noblest to the most unscrupulous. A persistent motif in Meditations is Aurelius’s struggle with restraining frustration and anger with incompetent or dishonest people in his life. However, at no point in the book does he blame others for wrong doing. Instead, when faced with someone’s bad behaviour, he asks himself when he might’ve acted like that or if he should have trusted that person in the first place. Either perspective puts the responsibility squarely on his shoulders.
Although the Stoics believed in an all-pervading force called the logos, judging from Aurelius’s writings they still firmly believed in the importance of controlling what one can control. Once you take care of your own actions then you can be open to whatever may happen from there.
If you’ve enjoyed this summary, you’ll likely also enjoy some other Stoic philosophy. Ryan Holliday has a fantastic book called The Obstacle Is the Way which draws from the many lessons from historical Stoics including Marcus Aurelius. You’ll likely also enjoy The Tao of Seneca: Practical Letters from a Stoic Master which is an audiobook of the letters written by another Stoic master, Lucius Annaeus Seneca.
However you decide to use this knowledge, remember to be aware of your perceptions, make the effort to clear your mind, and take personal responsibility for everything that happens around you. Whether you’re a Stoic or not, these are sound principles to follow.