100 Things I Learned in 10 Years and 100 Reads of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations

Almost exactly ten years ago, I bought the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius on Amazon. Amazon Prime didn’t exist then and to qualify for free shipping, I had to purchase a few other books at the same time. Two or three days later they all arrived. It’s a medium sized paperback, mostly white with a golden spine. On the cover Marcus is shown in relief, pardoning the barbarians. “Here, for our age, is Marcus’s great work,” says Robert Fagles in his blurb. I was 19 years old. I didn’t know who Marcus Aurelius was (besides the old guy in Gladiator) and I certainly didn’t know who Robert Fagles or Gregory Hays, the translator, was. But something drew me to this book almost immediately. I suppose it was luck that brought me to the specific translation I’d chosen (Modern Library Edition)—though the Stoics would call it fated—but what arrived would change my life. It would be for me, what Tyler Cowen would call a “a quake book,” shaking everything I thought I knew about the world (however little that actually was). I would also become what Stephen Marche has referred to as a “centireader,” reading Marcus Aurelius well over 100 times across multiple editions and copies. In the course of those readings and my study of Stoicism, a lot has changed. Marcus Aurelius has guided me through breakups and getting married, through being relatively young and poor and relatively older and well-off. His wisdom has helped me with getting fired and with quitting, with success and with struggles. I’ve carried him to close to a dozen countries and moved him to multiple houses. I’ve turned to him for articles and books and casual dinner conversation. The one pristine white cover is now its own shade of tan, but with every read, every time I’ve touched the book, I’ve gotten something new or been reminded of something timeless and important. Now with the release of my own translation and compendium, The Daily Stoic (and a daily email newsletter at DailyStoic.com), I wanted to take the time to reflect on what I’ve learned in ten years with one of the greatest and most unique pieces of literature ever created. (And to learn more about Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism, sign up for the Daily Stoic’s free 7-day course on Stoicism packed with exclusive resources, Stoic exercises, interviews and much more!) -It was the opening passage of Book 5—about our reluctance to get out of bed and get moving in the morning—that struck me most on my first read. As you can see, I wrote “FUCK” with a highlighter and you can see how important that passage was to me at the time in a 2007 blog post. Later, I would print out this passage and put it next to my desk and bed. I think it was that as a college student I needed that extra motivation. I was a little lazy and entitled. I needed to seize life and take advantage of it—and Marcus served me well in that regard for a long time. -Though I will say that today, I think less about the passage that motivates me to do more and be more active. If I was to put a different one on my desk, I’d choose from Book Ten, “If you seek tranquility, do less.” -In my first read of Meditations, I highlighted the line “It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character.” In a later read I added brackets around that line, just for more emphasis. And I underlined in pen what came after, “Otherwise, it cannot harm you—inside or out.” -Pages XXVI and XXV of Hays’s introduction is where I was first introduced to the distillation of Stoicism into three distinct disciplines (perception, action, will). It was this order that eventually shaped both The Obstacle is the Way and The Daily Stoic. When I get asked to explain the three disciplines, this is usually my short answer: See things for what they are. Do what we can. Endure and bear what we must. -Hays’s introduction also lists Alexander Pope, Goethe and William Alexander Percy as students and fans of Marcus Aurelius. Reading works by all of these individuals—especially Percy (and his adopted son, Walker Percy)—sent me down a rabbit hole that would be one of the most enjoyable of my reading life. I encourage everyone to read Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee. -In Book Four, Marcus reminds himself to think about all the doctors who “died, after furrowing their brows over how many deathbeds, how many astrologers, after pompous forecasts about other’s ends.” In black pen—somewhat recently it looks like—I added “or plotters, schemers and strategists, outsmarted, outmaneuvered and destroyed.” I suppose that was a dig at myself and other smart people. None of what we do lasts, no matter how clever or brilliant. It’s good to remember that. -“So we throw out other people’s recognition. What’s left for us to prize?” I answer in blue pen in one read, “To embrace and to resist our nature.” What do I—what did Marcus—mean by that? I think it’s encouraging what is good about us and to fight against what is bad. To encourage the parts of ourselves that are moral, helpful, honest and aware and to fight against what is selfish, petty, shortsighted and wrong. It’s to live by what Warren Buffett calls the “inner scorecard” and ignore the outer one (other people’s recognition). -In that same passage, Marcus also writes “If you can’t stop prizing a lot of other things? Then you’ll never be free—free, independent, imperturbable.” I have in my copy a jotted note from Fight Club, “Only when you’ve lost everything, you are free to do anything.” -When I first read Meditations, I was in the middle of some ridiculous drama with my college roommates. I won’t bore you with the details, but at the time, I was frustrated, disappointed and miserable about where I was living. I think this was the reason … Continue reading 100 Things I Learned in 10 Years and 100 Reads of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations