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Jun 10

The Marcus Aurelius Guide to Stoic Journaling

marcus-aurelius--1400x600Do you ever contemplate the many facets of your existence? Chances are, if you’re reading this article, you probably do.

What about the characters in your life—do you feel as if you’ve chosen them? Do they add value to your life, and you to theirs? What kind of value? Are you conscious of how they might be influencing you?

Do you ever choose to write down the fruits of your contemplations? Do you ever harness the flow of your thoughts to a page with no particular end in mind?

That’s what Marcus Aurelius was doing around AD 170 – 175. What have come to be known as his Meditations began purely as personal, written explorations which were never intended for publication.

Posthumously, his notes were divided into twelve chapters—or “books”—each one of which offers us a plethora of timeless existential insights, maxims and, perhaps most importantly, questions that encourage the reader to reflect directly on his/her own life, as opposed to merely observing the philosopher’s viewpoint from a detached position.

Aurelius-WritingMarcus Aurelius most likely penned his journals, the Meditations, whilst on campaign in Europe c. AD 170-175.

For today, I’d like to focus on the first book, which is unlike the eleven that follow. In it, Aurelius pays eloquent homage to the honourable qualities of his nearest and dearest; an observation of his gratitude to those who had directed, influenced, and improved upon his life.

Aside from providing insight into what personal characteristics Aurelius himself deemed to be exemplary, this particular collection serves as inspiration for us to consider the admirable attributes inherent in those by whom we are most influenced. Note here, that we are not necessarily speaking exclusively of friends. Aurelius also wrote about family, teachers, colleagues, and gods.

Their common denominator was that they had a profoundly positive impact on Aurelius’ life, so much so that he saw it fit to detail in black and white exactly what he had recognised in them and how it had, in turn, encouraged him to behave.

15 Marks of Good Character (according to Marcus Aurelius)

I find the following selection of observances to be particularly inspiring when I see them through the lens of modernity:

Note: I have paraphrased the translation of Book 1 that I have in my possession, in order to compile a list of guidances as opposed to personal observations as originally chronicled by Aurelius. For example, a direct quote of #1 would read “To work with my own hands, and mind my own business.”

1. Work with your own hands, and mind your own business

2. Avoid empty enthusiasms

3. Always carry the same demeanor, unchanged in sudden pain

4. Combine intensity and relaxation

5. Avoid impatience in explanation

6. Tolerate the emptily opinionated

7. Praise without fanfare, and wear great learning lightly

8. Never say or write to anyone that you are “too busy”

9. Develop self-mastery, immunize yourself against passing whims

10. Be neither hurried nor hesitant

11. Become your own master in all things, and serene with it

12. Maintain foresight with respect to long-term issues, and cultivate unfussy control with respect to smaller details

13. Enjoy the comforts that life has afforded you with neither pride nor apology—no routine acceptance of their presence, or regret in their absence

14. Focus on what needs to be done, not the glory of its doing

15. Regulate abstinence and enjoyment

What strikes me as pertinent when reading the first book is how Aurelius humbly ascribes his accumulated wisdom to those with whom he shared his life. The chapter in its entirety is dense with astute observations that exhibit the Philosopher-Emperor’s acute attention to detail, not to mention a sincere interest in consistent self-development.

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