Waste no time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.Marcus Aurelius
I have just recently finished reading Meditations, the personal writings of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and his philosophical outlook on life, translated by Gregory Hays. I have been interested in philosophy for some time now, but this is one of the first philosophy books I have ever read in its entirety, and it has been a great introduction for me. Therefore, I will share my personal experience reading this book, how I have interpreted it, and how I am applying it to my life.
First, I would like to start with something that I noticed that I have not heard discussed as widely by others, that is, his belief in the importance of balancing individualism and collectivism. In his own words, “what injures the hive, injures the bee.” No man is entirely alone, and no man SHOULD be entirely alone. We are all influenced by the actions of others, and, in turn, our own actions influence others. Men must serve those around them, for in doing so, they are also doing a service to themself. Of course, the stoic understands that a man cannot merely assimilate into the herd, nor should he allow the actions of others to cause him great distress. A random passerby’s opinion of you should not impact you negatively, nor should your life be thrown into disarray by the whims and feelings of others.
The stoic man, while not an island free from external influence, is still very much his own man. Marcus Aurelius goes on to say, “it never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.” This saying clearly expresses that certain individuals are far too concerned with the approval of those around them, to the point where they will change and compromise aspects of who they are to fit neatly into the collective. Marcus Aurelius and other stoic philosophers reject this, seeing that a man must not be concerned with approval, fame, or popularity, but must be entirely concerned on whether or not they are actually living virtuously.
This really struck a chord with me. For years, I have been far too concerned with whether or not I fit in and seem normal, which has only allowed my individuality to peak through in minimal ways. Being a Christian living in a non-Christian environment and being friends with many people who are far from Christians, this has obviously led me down some dark paths I wish I had never gone down. Instead of being concerned with reflecting Christ and the long-term effects of my actions, I was concerned with whether I was approved of in the moment by my peers. But, as Marcus Aurelius points out, what does it matter if people want me to do this or that? I will one day pass away, and so will they, and we will be judged. Plus, whatever sin I am urged to commit will be forgotten within a matter of days anyway, so why even bother caving in? After reading Meditations, I have chosen to reorient my life so that every action I take will not be for the approval of others, but for the approval of God and myself.
In addition to motivating me to reorient myself towards God, I discovered just how similar Marcus Aurelius’s philosophy was to the teachings of Jesus Christ Himself. Of course, Marcus Aurelius was not a Christian, but the parallels are still there. Marcus Aurelius clearly realized the existence of some sort of divine being, or as he put it, a “ruling faculty.” To live virtuously is to live by the rules of this “ruling faculty,” that being, to live with courage, purpose, and devotion. Marcus Aurelius also preaches that one must learn to accept the circumstances that are outside of their control, which I think can be likened to Christ’s attitude towards the will of the Father and, specifically, His Passion. Jesus accepted that it was His purpose to die on the cross so that we could all be saved. We should not become anxious over the events beyond our control; things happen, and that’s okay.
After reading Meditations once, I feel as if I must read it again. This is definitely not a book that you read once and allow it to collect dust as you cycle through other books. It is meant to be read regularly. I will absolutely be returning to this book time and time again, and I hope that I will continue to see and learn things I did not see before when reading it. I would like to wrap this up with by far my favorite quote from the entire book; “waste no time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”