Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Meditations is a compelling insight into the mind and age of a Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius. True to its name, Meditations to a large extent takes the shape of an inner dialogue with questions and answers, admonishments, encouragement to himself. Of note is that he writes much of this unaware of the renown his thoughts are to gain, he writes it for himself. An already captivating introduction where he lists the virtues of those near him and expresses his gratitude towards them becomes ever more impressive by this fact.
Part of the reason the book remains in circulation, I believe, is that it touches on universal human anxieties, questions, thoughts. The anxiety of death is a recurring theme. It is something to be faced without panic — it’s just a part of nature, he writes to himself. The worth of virtue is another recurring theme and Meditations has multiple admonishments to temperance, to kindness, repeated kindness, even to “the most vicious person”, to patience. There are parts expressing disdain towards existence, and sometimes towards people and a humanity which is regarded as bothersome. That said this is balanced out by his telling himself to be patient, be virtuous, with people around him — they simply don’t know better.
Meditations was written over multiple years, I will quote the final thing which he wrote, it seems to have been written close to his death:
“You’ve lived as a citizen in a great city. Five years or a hundred — what’s the difference? The laws make no distinction. And to be sent away from it, not by a tyrant or a dishonest judge, but by Nature, who first invited you in — why is that so terrible? Like the impresario ringing down the curtain on an actor: “But I’ve only gotten through three acts . . . !” Yes. This will be a drama in three acts, the length fixed by the power that directed your creation, and now directs your dissolution. Neither was yours to determine. So make your exit with grace — the same grace shown to you”
Meditations, and I suppose stoicism in general, deals with suffering, life, death, with purpose, and this gives it a quasi-religious feel sometimes… Maybe oftentimes. At one point I was reminded of verses of the Quran that encourage steadfastness “in misfortune, adversity, and times of danger (2:177)” as a sign of true righteousness. These parallels will likely exist in other religious traditions as well, that may be a point of exploration for some other time.