Meditations: A New Translation summary
This new translation was a lot clearer and more accessible than the free version you can get on the Kindle. What was especially useful was the introduction to this edition, which provided a lot of context around "Marcus’s life and career, the essentials of Stoic doctrine, the style and construction of the Meditations, and the work’s ongoing influence", all of which really helped me solidify and internalise the teachings of Meditations.
Meditations is divided into 12 "books" or "chapters". Each chapter then comprises individual bullet point notes displaying the wisdom and practical guidance on living life and accepting death, that has made Marcus one of the most popular and famous Stoic philosophy writers. Each chapter doesn't really seem to have a central theme, so it's pretty easy to pick up the book and then stop after you've had your daily dose of Stoic guidance.
Most of the points center around a number of key tenets of Stoic philosophy, namely:
- The idea that the world is organised in a rational and coherent way
- The principal of logos, which is present in both individuals and in the universe as a whole
- In individuals, it is the faculty of reason
- On a cosmic level, it is the rational principle that governs the organization of the universe. We must therefore accept whatever fate has in store for us, however unpleasant.
- The individual's need to exercise stringent control over perception, in order to protect our mind from error and insulate ourselves from pain and anxiety
- Humans were created to live life, not as an individual, but for the collective whole, and our nature must therefore be fundamentally unselfish. In our relationships with others we must work for their collective good, while treating them justly and fairly as individuals.
- Death is not something to be feared as it is inevitable and is in accordance with the logos. After death, there is no "us" to suffer harm.
In order to make better sense of all of the nuggets of wisdom present in the book, I have roughly organised my key takeaways into the tenets I mentioned above. I'll however start with a bit of background on Stoic philosophy before I dive right in.
A bit of backgroud on Stoic philosophy
- Perhaps the most important development was a shift in emphasis, a narrowing of focus. Early and middle Stoicism was a holistic system. It aimed to embrace all knowledge, and its focus was speculative and theoretical. Roman Stoicism, by contrast, was a practical discipline—not an abstract system of thought, but an attitude to life. Partly for historical reasons, it is this Romanized Stoicism that has most influenced later generations.
- Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option: to accept this event with humility [will]; to treat this person as he should be treated [action]; to approach this thought with care, so that nothing irrational creeps in [perception].
- The Stoic world is ordered to the nth degree; the Epicurean universe is random, the product of the haphazard conjunctions of billions of atoms.
- Marcus does not offer us a means of achieving happiness, but only a means of resisting pain. The Stoicism of the Meditations is fundamentally a defensive philosophy;
Logos and belief in a rational cosmos that constantly changes
- Nothing is so conducive to spiritual growth as this capacity for logical and accurate analysis of everything that happens to us.
- Then what should we work for? Only this: proper understanding; unselfish action; truthful speech. A resolve to accept whatever happens as necessary and familiar, flowing like water from that same source and spring.
- Constant awareness that everything is born from change. The knowledge that there is nothing nature loves more than to alter what exists and make new things like it.
- Remember: Matter. How tiny your share of it. Time. How brief and fleeting your allotment of it. Fate. How small a role you play in it.
- ...that the longest-lived and those who will die soonest lose the same thing. The present is all that they can give up, since that is all you have, and what you do not have, you cannot lose.
- ...that it accepts death in a cheerful spirit, as nothing but the dissolution of the elements from which each living thing is composed. If it doesn’t hurt the individual elements to change continually into one another, why are people afraid of all of them changing and separating? It’s a natural thing. And nothing natural is evil.
- In short, know this: Human lives are brief and trivial. Yesterday a blob of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash. To pass through this brief life as nature demands. To give it up without complaint. Like an olive that ripens and falls. Praising its mother, thanking the tree it grew on.
- Stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and ask yourself: Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore?
On living life with purpose and self-reliance
- To read attentively—not to be satisfied with “just getting the gist of it.”
- Self-reliance, always. And cheerfulness. And his advance planning (well in advance) and his discreet attention to even minor things. His restrictions on acclamations—and all attempts to flatter him.
- ...there is a limit to the time assigned to you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.
- ...if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable.
- ...if you won’t keep track of what your own soul’s doing, how can you not be unhappy?
- You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.
- ...even the smallest things ought to be directed toward a goal.
- Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it: Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see.
- No random actions, none not based on underlying principles.
- Suppose that a god announced that you were going to die tomorrow “or the day after.” Unless you were a complete coward you wouldn’t kick up a fuss about which day it was—what difference could it make? Now recognize that the difference between years from now and tomorrow is just as small.
- But remembering that our own worth is measured by what we devote our energy to.
- To stop talking about what the good man is like, and just be one.
- Learn to ask of all actions, “Why are they doing that?” Starting with your own.
- ...behave in a conciliatory way when people who have angered or annoyed us want to make up.
- 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.
- Treat what you don’t have as nonexistent. Look at what you have, the things you value most, and think of how much you’d crave them if you didn’t have them. But be careful. Don’t feel such satisfaction that you start to overvalue them—that it would upset you to lose them.
- Yes, boorish people do boorish things. What’s strange or unheard-of about that? Isn’t it yourself you should reproach—for not anticipating that they’d act this way? The logos gave you the means to see it—that a given person would act a given way—but you paid no attention. And now you’re astonished that he’s gone and done it. So when you call someone “untrustworthy” or “ungrateful,” turn the reproach on yourself. It was you who did wrong. By assuming that someone with those traits deserved your trust. Or by doing them a favor and expecting something in return, instead of looking to the action itself for your reward.
On living as part of a collective whole
- ...to have learned how to accept favors from friends without losing your self-respect or appearing ungrateful.
- Never regard something as doing you good if it makes you betray a trust, or lose your sense of shame, or makes you show hatred, suspicion, ill will, or hypocrisy, or a desire for things best done behind closed doors.
- What’s there to complain about? People’s misbehavior? But take into consideration: that rational beings exist for one another; that doing what’s right sometimes requires patience; that no one does the wrong thing deliberately; and the number of people who have feuded and envied and hated and fought and died and been buried. … and keep your mouth shut.
- Practice really hearing what people say. Do your best to get inside their minds.
- Joy for humans lies in human actions. Human actions: kindness to others, contempt for the senses, the interrogation of appearances, observation of nature and of events in nature.
- 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.
- The despicable phoniness of people who say, “Listen, I’m going to level with you here.” What does that mean? It shouldn’t even need to be said. It should be obvious—written in block letters on your forehead. It should be audible in your voice, visible in your eyes, like a lover who looks into your face and takes in the whole story at a glance. A straightforward, honest person should be like someone who stinks: when you’re in the same room with him, you know it. But false straightforwardness is like a knife in the back. False friendship is the worst. Avoid it at all costs. If you’re honest and straightforward and mean well, it should show in your eyes. It should be unmistakable.
- Your ability to control your thoughts—treat it with respect. It’s all that protects your mind from false perceptions—
- Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed—and you haven’t been.
- The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.
- The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.
- But true good fortune is what you make for yourself. Good fortune: good character, good intentions, and good actions.
- Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Or that this noble vintage is grape juice, and the purple robes are sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood. Or making love—something rubbing against your penis, a brief seizure and a little cloudy liquid. Perceptions like that—latching onto things and piercing through them, so we see what they really are. That’s what we need to do all the time—all through our lives when things lay claim to our trust—to lay them bare and see how pointless they are, to strip away the legend that encrusts them.
- Not to assume it’s impossible because you find it hard. But to recognize that if it’s humanly possible, you can do it too.
- ...pain is neither unbearable nor unending, as long as you keep in mind its limits and don’t magnify them in your imagination.
- Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions—not outside.
On self-control and resistance (from ego, distraction and pain)
- Self-control and resistance to distractions. Optimism in adversity—especially illness. A personality in balance: dignity and grace together. Doing your job without whining.
- Everyone gets one life. Yours is almost used up, and instead of treating yourself with respect, you have entrusted your own happiness to the souls of others.
- Do external things distract you? Then make time for yourself to learn something worthwhile; stop letting yourself be pulled in all directions.
- You need to avoid certain things in your train of thought: everything random, everything irrelevant. And certainly everything self-important or malicious.
- ...you can get away from it anytime you like. By going within. Nowhere you can go is more peaceful—more free of interruptions—than your own soul.
- Or is it your reputation that’s bothering you? But look at how soon we’re all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that swallows it all. The emptiness of all those applauding hands. The people who praise us—how capricious they are, how arbitrary.
- What use is praise, except to make your lifestyle a little more comfortable?
- It’s courtesy and kindness that define a human being—and a man. That’s who possesses strength and nerves and guts, not the angry whiners. To react like that brings you closer to impassivity—and so to strength. Pain is the opposite of strength, and so is anger. Both are things we suffer from, and yield to.…
- It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.