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Stoicism: Meditations and the Wisdom of Marcus Aurelius

The following is a transcript of this video.

“The art of true living in this world is more like a wrestler’s, than a dancer’s practice. For in this they both agree, to teach a man whatsoever falls upon him, that he may be ready for it, and that nothing may cast him down.” (Meditations, Marcus Aurelius)

These words were penned by Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic philosopher, who was also the Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 AD.

Between 170 and 180 AD while on a number of military campaigns, Marcus kept a personal journal in which he recorded his thoughts on how he could use Stoic philosophy to improve his life and cope with the hardships and struggles of existence. This journal is known as the Meditations and in this video we will examine some of the practical advice found in it for improving the quality of one’s life.

In particular, we are going to look at some of the techniques that Marcus used for the attainment of tranquility, which is 

“a psychological state marked by the absence of negative emotions, such as grief, anger, and anxiety, and the presence of positive emotions, such as joy”. (A Guide to the Good Life, William Irvine)

Tranquility, in addition to virtue, was one of the ultimate goals for a practicing Roman Stoic such as Marcus.

Key to the Stoic way of life is the idea that what is most important to our well-being, and conducive to a tranquil existence, is not what happens to us, but the inner discourse that accompanies the events of our life. As Marcus explains:

“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” (Meditations, Marcus Aurelius)

The Stoics believed that it was not the attainment of any external goods, be it fame, good looks, power over others, or wealth that were key to a good life, but rather a mastery of the mind. External things, the Stoics noted, can come and go due to factors outside of our control so if we stake our happiness on any of these thing we give up control of our lives.

A person who prides themselves on their looks will  inevitably grow old, a rich man can  quickly lose his fortune, and the  fickle nature of the masses can grow tired of a famous actress.

Unlike external goods, the Stoics believed we could control the way our mind frames, or interprets, the events of our life. When something happens there is no single way to interpret it; there are too many stimuli, and too many alternative ways of looking at it. Whether we are aware of it or not, in a sense we construct the manner in which we present the happenings of the world to ourselves.

The Stoics believed that we should take control of this fact and use it to our advantage. We must realize that when we suffer a loss or someone treats us poorly we are not required to react with sadness or anger, but instead can learn to reframe how we interpret such events thus minimizing the impact of negative emotions. This is of utmost importance for as Marcus put it:

“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” (Meditations, Marcus Aurelius)

One of the main things that disrupts the quality of thoughts, Marcus recognized, is the inability of most people to live in the present. Instead people all too often dwell on past events or worry about future possibilities. A technique Marcus used to increase his appreciation for each moment was one he learned from the great philosopher-slave Epictetus.

This technique, which is now referred to as negative visualization, entails reflecting on the transitory nature of all the external things in our life. For example, when greeting a friend one should silently reflect on the friend’s mortality and realize this may be the last time they see each other.

While some may see this as morbid, the Stoics thought that people needed to be more conscious of the transitory nature of all things. Many people do not realize the relative brevity of the time they will spend with their friends and loved ones until it is too late, so periodic reminders can help one more fully appreciate the time they do have.

But Marcus also advised that when reflecting on these things we must also “beware lest delight in them leads you to cherish them so dearly that their loss would destroy your peace of mind.”(Meditations, Marcus Aurelius)

Marcus also used negative visualization to help him live more in the present by reflecting on the fact that his own death could come at any moment. The Stoics believed that as one became more aware that their life could end at any time they would be more likely to live in the most intense manner possible, and strive to take advantage of each moment. Such an awareness also provides context to the relative triviality of so many of the things that most people worry about.

In addition to worrying about the past and future, another thing that often brings negative emotions, and disrupts the quality of our thoughts, is concern with the opinions of others. Being overly concerned with such opinions would not, according to Marcus, lead to a satisfying life, but rather one of frustration, dissatisfaction, and anger.

Marcus put forth a number of reasons to justify this assertion. One reason was simply due to the fact that the overwhelming majority of people are concerned with petty matters and therefore their opinions are of little value. In the words of Marcus:

“Everything by which people set so much store in life is emptiness, putrefaction, pettiness; little dogs nipping at one another; little children who laugh as they fight, and then suddenly burst into tears.” (Meditations, Marcus Aurelius)

Given the petty nature of most people, Marcus posed the following question:

“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.” (Meditations, Marcus Aurelius)

Marcus was also no fan of looking to the masses, or using majority consensus, to determine how one should live. As he put it:

“The object in life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.” (Meditations, Marcus Aurelius)

Not surprisingly, for one who strove for tranquility, Marcus advised that we avoid getting angry when others offend us. When insulted, Marcus said that we should not return like with like, but rather we should realize that “The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury”. (Meditations, Marcus Aurelius)

To help achieve this type of revenge Marcus counselled the following:

“When another blames you or hates you, or people voice similar criticisms, go to their souls, penetrate inside and see what sort of people they are. You will realize that there is no need to be racked with anxiety that they should hold any particular opinion about you.” (Meditations, Marcus Aurelius)

In order to utilize the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius to help transform your life it is not enough to simply be aware of his teachings, rather repeated practice of the Stoic techniques is required. It is likely that one of the reasons Marcus kept a journal was to constantly remind himself of the teachings of Stoicism so that he could effectively apply them in his day-to-day life.

But those who do put in the practice and effort are likely to be rewarded as the tenets of Stoic philosophy have stood the test of time. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which is one of the most effective psychotherapeutic techniques for treating anxiety and depression disorders, is based on the teachings of Stoicism.

To conclude this video, we’ll provide a passage by Marcus in which he nicely articulates why we must not delay in our effort to achieve self-betterment:

“Remember how long you’ve been putting this off…At some point you have to recognize what world it is that you belong to; what power rules it and from what source you spring; that there is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.” (Meditations, Marcus Aurelius)

Further Readings