Those that contend with Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations
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I was 15 when I first read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. His notions on life were monumental in giving me a sense of belonging. Aurelius has a way of changing your framing of the world; away from the tendency to feel you are owed something by Nature, to instead discover what it is you can owe. A sense of duty. It is this purpose derived from duty that transcends happiness to something likely resembling contentment, or peace:
“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength” — which is akin to Epictetus’, “Happiness comes from knowing what is in your power to control and what is not”.
In brief, Aurelius champions, almost to the point of implausibility, personal responsibility, and utter commitment to aim for the higher in spite of the suffering curtailing us at every point, which tempts us to aim for the lower.
Meditations is a trending work due to the publicity it has received from public personas, whereas years prior it sat on the shelves of philosophy professors. It has only taken a few tweets of his writing to reach and inspire a new generation. But there are other works that are, or were, in the same position. Great works of art still remain gathering dust on the shelves of historians and professors, waiting to have life breathed into their pages once again. These are but a few works I discovered at around the same time, that had as much impact on me, if not more…
The Book of Five Rings
Know one. Know Ten Thousand.
Born in 1584, Japan, Miyamoto Musashi was a swordsman, philosopher, and rōnin. He is considered to be Japan’s greatest swordsman to have lived, undefeated in 61 duels. These were bouts to the death — a hallmark of being a rōnin: masterless and one that searches the countryside for fighters to test their quality.
Like Aurelius, who campaigned ferociously in Germany, Musashi was no stranger to death dealt by his own hands. The ethics (by today’s standards) of both men are noticeably questionable; but whether you agree with the consequences of both men’s actions, one thing is apparent in both their writing: the impermanence and beauty of life if you but seek it out.
Perhaps the proximity of death is why their writing is so poignant and perhaps imitable. Musashi’s, The Book of Five Rings, is a manuscript that recorded the teachings of his School of the Sword. And whilst the passages are tailored to the study of martial arts and the heat of battle, each chapter is applicable to any part of our lives. It is for this reason why Musashi is so adored in the East:
Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world.
Musashi’s writing may cater to the more leadership inclined as many of the teachings are treaties on adversity. He provides numerous strategies to deal with overwhelming odds, such as “attacking the sides”, akin to how one would deal with a jigsaw puzzle. In my line of work, using Musashi’s code: One thing, at one time, to the best of your ability — has been a game-changer in how I approach reconciliations of investment accounts moving millions of pounds a day.
Musashi’s writings are practical, meaning the codes are meant to be lived rather than observed at a distance. He has provided me with a Way to develop self-reliance and discipline that I maintain to this day.
There is nothing outside of yourself that can ever enable you to get better, stronger, richer, quicker, or smarter. Everything is within. Everything exists. Seek nothing outside of yourself.
Whilst not so much a work of antiquity, if you find Musashi’s book difficult to infuse with due to its abstraction of applying swordsmanship to everyday life, I recommend Zen Mind, Beginners Mind by Shunryū Suzuki. Much of his work has inspired the rapid growth of performance and sports psychology, because of its practicality in maintaining focus, discipline, and a love of learning. Phil Jackson, coach of the 90’s Chicago Bulls team, made use of such techniques offered by Suzuki and I use them to this day on the grappling mats. It is a powerful source of wisdom whereby you would be foolish not to give it a moment of your time.
Having touched lightly on Self-Reliance, we come to our next work, Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Whilst his protégé, Hendry David Thoreau, is rather more well known for his work “Walden”, his teacher has a rather more muted reputation. This is a shame, for his prose touches upon this fleeting part of ourselves: Innocence and Wonder.
It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion — it is easy in solitude to live after your own; but the great man is he who, in the midst of the world, keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.
There is something of Emerson’s writing that recalls to mind William Blake’s poem Auguries of Innocence:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour
Emerson illustrates the importance of the self, unfettered, and unyielding. He shakes you awake to not forget to look upon the stars and marvel before sleep takes you. And as Musashi said all those years ago, Emerson similarly challenges you to think deeply of the world and your part to play in it.
“If stars should appear one night in a thousand years” Emerson begins, setting the idealism that runs the narrative. And this work is just that, an idyllic and subservient perspective of the beauty of Nature. Pandemics, guinea worms, or dysentery might be the first few things that come to mind when Nature is idealized in this way, but Emerson, like Aurelius, reminds us of our place within a whole; to maintain a sense of gratitude despite entropy constantly chipping away our time. This gratitude does not have to be internally developed, like a dogma, but simply experienced within her fields, her trees, and her lakes if you but simply look:
The Sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the heart of the child… In the presence of nature a wild delights runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows.
Whilst Stoicism heavily leans on building from within, Emerson, though similarly orientated, also asks us to open outwards and make of ourselves willing to be changed from without as well as within. Bear in mind, this a book of antiquity, and therefore written in a context far removed from our own. There are slight references to religion, but being myself an atheist, appreciated the message nonetheless. His critiques of scientific empiricism are but a result of his devotion and whilst I would not recommend emulating Emerson down that particular route, it does much for one’s ego to consider other viewpoints.
From Emerson’s Nature, I developed a notion of gratitude, the importance of seeking wonder, to lift the mundane to the celestial. Whether it was digging holes or in my current role that requires scouring through thousands of transactions, Emerson’s words whisper in my ear. With all things you set out to do, ensure you take it to the heights of Apollo and be not content to wallow in the mire.
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A Satire Worth Its Weight in Gold
Lastly, the final work that is due a resurgence is not a manuscript or a meditation, it is a satire. I thought long and hard about including this at the expense of others, but this work stays with you, in the sense, that you retain it within your imagination or subconscious due to its imagery and story.
The work is Candide, Or Optimism by Voltaire. It is not a book of quotes you can tweet about and begin a mass resurgence. It must be absorbed; and likely why it may never topple the Stoics from their current fame. However, it is a short novella, one that can be read in a day, but with a message that lasts a lifetime.
The message — That Life is Suffering. And whilst this is nothing new, it was Voltaire’s retaliation to the idealism of the day, “that all is for the best”, and blind ignorance to the poverty and calamities that were occurring in the 18th century. This may resonate with many of you, who are agonizing over our current culture's demand for “happiness” at all costs, without having a clear understanding of what constitutes happiness, given its exceedingly ephemeral nature.
This work provides you the antithesis of Emerson’s viewpoint: Could you enjoy the serenity of the setting sun on the lake, having had the gravest evils inflicted upon you? Voltaire touches upon everything life could throw at you, from war, mass murder, rape, dismemberment, disability, and finally the utter agonies of old age. He does this by not drowning the work in sorrow but writing it through comedy. The humor of it all perhaps summarises his ending, that despite it all, all you can do is survive and carry on. Perhaps Emerson’s outlook is the remedy to Voltaire’s point.
But what is there to gain from reading a comedy on the atrocities committed by humankind, or the havoc caused by Natural disasters?
For one, it gives you a bloody good wake-up call to be thankful for all you’ve had and might have. Second, it forces you to look beyond your horizon, beyond your frog-pond, and truly look to the fortunes of others. To foster empathy and understanding of the trials of life and how they shape us individually. You might have more understanding of another’s actions given any number of things that may have occurred to them that remain unknown to you. This kind of empathy prevents knee-jerk reactions which are the offspring of prejudice. Voltaire’s work forced me to consider lives beyond my own, as strange as it sounds, to reevaluate my views on “bad” people, and question whether there was anything of that yoke within us at all.
I have wanted to kill myself a hundred times, but somehow I am still in love with life. This ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our more stupid melancholy propensities, for is there anything more stupid than to be eager to go on carrying a burden which one would gladly throw away…
Voltaire’s work inspired me to work with prisoners and the wrongfully convicted. Working with Rubin Hurricane Carter’s team to free David McCallum from 29 years of wrongful incarceration is the achievement of my lifetime, and in some way, I owe it to this novella for opening my eyes to the tragedies of life and the benefits of not shying away from its vicissitudes.