Has your rule been literally plagued by disease? Have you been the object of adoration, but also of hatred? Has the market devastated your 401(k)? Ever lose a loved one? Miss your train to Great Neck? Had to fend off invaders from the east? Whatever the setback, Marcus Aurelius will get you through it.
A cornerstone of Stoicism, his meditations can help retrain your brain to reign in emotions and act – or not – with a clear eye. Stoicism is all about being impervious to life’s vicissitudes. “Be like the jutting rock against which waves are constantly crashing, and all around it the frothing foam of the waters then settles back down.”
For stoics, the difference is between being defeated or enduring. It is the difference between saying, “Oh, I am so unfortunate that this has happened to me,” and “How fortunate I am that, even though this has happened to me, I continue uninjured, neither terrified by the present nor in fear of the future.”
Aurelius, Emperor of Rome from CE 161 to 180, knew what he was talking about. He was pulled into a war with Parthia after a Parthian land-grab. Upon the war’s conclusion, returning soldiers brought back a plague that devastated Rome. His empire was also attacked by fierce Germanic tribes and he later had to fight a rival, Avidius Cassius, to keep his crown. Meanwhile his home life also brought misery. Aurelius’ suffered the loss of a number of his 13 children, such that he wrote that rather than pray: “‘How I may not lose my little child,’ one must pray ‘how I may not be afraid to lose him?’”.
Stoicism was influenced by the teachings of Socrates. Aurelius studied other foundational tracts written by the former slave, Epictetus. The philosophy emphasizes fate, reason, and self-restraint. In his own writings, Aurelius stresses the shortness of life and that one should live according to principals that allow him to have respect for himself, rather than react to what motivates others or how others view him. He writes “Remember also that each man lives only the present moment: The rest of time is either spent and gone or is quite unknown.”
This translation, by John Piazza and Jacob Needleman, is clear, concise, and user-friendly. Those wanting to delve deeper can certainly find more detailed editions, but Piazza and Needleman cherry-pick the most universal principals that are as relevant and troubling to people today as they were to one of the grandest Roman Emperors of his time.
It is unclear as to whether Aurelius was writing for posterity or to clear his own thinking, but his tome is the Mother of All Self-Help Books. The next time your home gets destroyed in a Donnie Darko type catastrophe, or your business goes bust, or something you bought yesterday goes on sale today at 50% off, it might be tempting to have a drink, but consider picking up your Marcus Aurelius.
Come to think of it, you could do both.