I read the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius the first time in August 2014. To be honest, it disappointed me. A couple of months before, I read The Obstacle Is The Way by Ryan Holiday and A Guide To The Good Life By William B. Irvine. They introduced me to stoicism. I loved reading both books. Both authors explain in a structured and easy way stoic ideas. I expected the same from Marcus Aurelius and the Meditations. But, the Meditations are not like any other book I read. In September 2015 I reread it with a clear view what the Meditations are and how I could take notes. This second time I wasn’t disappointed.
“The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing.” – Marcus Aurelius
I talked with few guys about the book. I also exchanged ideas with Quora users. The people I talked with all had problems reading it. During those conversations I noticed common problems.
Translators used old English for translation. Younger readers are not used to “thy”, “thou” and “thyself”. Such words also lead to complex grammar. It makes the book hard to read. I also looked into German translations. They’re also written in an old German. Maybe, Marcus wrote that way. I tried to find a modern translation but was out of luck. (If you know a modern translation, please let us know in the comment section.)
Words changed their meaning. In Marcus Aurelius time people had a different idea of the world. They thought that earth is the center of the universe, that gods control our lives and so on. Thus, the meditations contain many ideas that are outdated. We have to interpret them in the context of their times.
First time readers have wrong expectations. People market the meditations as an introduction to stoicism. It is not! I expected to read something about stoicism. Instead, Marcus wrote advice to himself. He didn’t try to explain what Stoics should do. Thus, first time readers try to figure out the stoic ideas but have no structure to do so. It is frustrating.
Nobody should feel ashamed for having a hard time reading the meditations. The first time I was reading it, I felt stupid. But, every Reader I know felt at some point the same; Even Tim Ferriss admits that he had problems reading it.
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” – Marcus Aurelius
Take a step back
To understand the meditations we have to understand how and why Marcus Aurelius wrote them. Marcus Aurelius was Roman Emperor from 161 and 180. He was the last of the Five Good Emperors. He wrote the Meditations between 170 and 180 while he was campaigning.
“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. “ – Marcus Aurelius
He wrote the Meditations for himself, one paragraph at a time. He never meant to publish them. But, the Meditations are not a journal or diary. They are more like notes full of advice and insights. Thus, the paragraphs have no sequence. I imagine Marcus sitting in his tent after a long day full of war and politics looking for guidance. He struggled with himself. He tried to better himself. He tried to be virtues, while the Roman Empire started to break apart.
Themes are leadership, nature, our place in the world, mortality, gods, stoicism, and so on. He repeats certain ideas many times. I assume he struggled hard with those.
“Take heed not to be transformed into a Caesar, not to be dipped in the purple dye, for it does happen. Keep yourself therefore, simple, good, pure, grave, unaffected, the friend of justice, religious, kind, affectionate, strong for your proper work. Wrestle to be the man philosophy wished to make you. Reverence the gods, save men. Life is brief; there is but one harvest of earthly existence, a holy disposition and neighborly acts.” – Marcus Aurelius
How to read The Meditations
I don’t recommend reading The Meditations from front to back. Every paragraph either introduces a new idea or changes the topic. I couldn’t summarize it that way.
I recommend two ways to read it.
I read one paragraph every morning as a part of my morning routine. The rest of the day I try to apply the wisdom. This way I don’t try to put everything into context. I recommend this way to people who want hands on practical stoic advice.
The second time I read the meditations, I was copying each paragraph into my personal Wiki. (You can use OneNote or Zim Wiki). I created pages for every topic. Each page contains all the quotes about the topic. The result is very interesting. I gained more insight into Marcus Aurelius idea of stoicism. I’m also able to summarize his ideas about a topic. I recommend this way to people who want a deeper, more theoretical understanding of stoicism and Marcus Aurelius.
Have you read the Meditations? If so, what was your experience?