This is a comprehensive summary of the book Meditations: An Emperor’s Guide to Mastery by Marcus Aurelius. Covering the key ideas and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski.
Worksheet: Download this summary to read offline.
The Book In Three Or More Sentences:
The private notes of the greatest emperor ever lived. Meditations – an ancient book which I believe everyone should read – holds the daily reflections of the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Inside these pages, you can sense the soul of this great man. Understand how he viewed death. How he approached adversity. Treated the people around him. And most importantly, what gave him the strength to continue.
The Core Idea:
Above all, you need to be a reasonable person. To live in harmony with nature and to make sure that you are the same person both in difficult times and in good times. When hardship enters the scene, as it will inevitably happen, to face it and act nobly.
- You have only now. Live in the present moment and use your time wisely.
- Other people are outside of your control. The best you can do is to show them. Let your deeds do the talking.
- If something bad happens, dig to find the gains. Don’t cling on the negative side of things.
The 5 Key Lessons From Meditations
Lesson #1: All You Have Is The Present Moment
Imagine what it was to live 2000 years ago – no fresh water, zero security, lack of food, continuous wars. People were surely daydreaming, hoping, for something good to happen. After all, how would anyone prevail the daily challenges if there wasn’t some sort of promise for a better future?
Yet, apart from instilling hope, hoping for a better future gives you a false sense of joy and accomplishment. What you really have is now, this present moment. Nothing else.
That’s what Marcus Aurelius persistently noted in his journal. He realized that moaning about the past and imagining a future where things are different, better, is just a waste of time. What we really have is the present moment. We neither hold yesterday nor have access to tomorrow. We have only now.
If you fail to harness the present moment and make your daily deeds worthy, it’s irrelevant of how many years you’ve stayed on this planet. Even if you live for thousands of years, you wasted all of them if you spend your time daydreaming or doing petty tasks.
“Enjoy the present moment. Expect nothing, fear nothing, speak truly, and act heroically. No one can stop you.” Marcus Aurelius
Lesson #2: Accept People As They Are
When we look at others, we imagine that they hold the same principles, ambitions, and intentions as we do. But when you come to think about it, you’ll easily spot how this claim is decisive.
Marcus Aurelius reported the same thing in his daily journaling. He wrote the following:
Begin each morning by saying to yourself: Today I will meet people who are noisy, ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, and unsocial. They can’t help it—they are ignorant of the difference between good and bad.”
“How is this helping me,” you might think?
Well, firstly, it will lower your bar. You’ll stop expecting wonders from others. Secondly, it will help you stay calm when you face self-absorbed characters.
As a person who’s guided by reason, you should know that there are others who don’t know the stuff you do. People who don’t have ambitions, goals, and simply live to see how others fail. Such folks are ignorant of their ignorance.
Hence, your task in life when you’re interacting with such conflicting characters, is to remain calm. Don’t try so hard to reason them. Convey your message using words but don’t expect grand results. And above all, don’t take it personally when they speak of you.
Lesson #3: Transform Obstacles Into Opportunities
Worthy things don’t come easy. There’s always some barrier preventing you from getting what you want. Especially if the item you wish to obtain promises more happiness, money, stability, or status. That’s why there aren’t a lot of rich, physically fit, or mentally stable people – we all have our limits and most of us give up when we continuously face bumps on our road.
But there is another way to look at things. Instead of considering the obstacles we daily face as wretched, we can see them as stepping stones for our progression as people.
Marcus Aurelius advises: “Is there an obstacle blocking your way? Make it part of your plan and turn it to your advantage.”
Think of it like that: If a task is easily achievable, it’s not worth doing. If there are mountains of challenges ahead, you’re on the right path.
Anticipate hardship. Desire suffering. That’s the only way you can “leave this world contentedly.”
Lesson #4: To Change Your Experience, Change Your Opinion
There are no good or bad events. There are good or bad ways we frame what happens to us. It’s always you who is defining the events. You make them good or bad, delightful or awful.
“But what if I was just fired from my highly paid job? That’s certainly a bad thing,” you might say.
Not necessarily. There’s always a positive side. If you no longer have your cool job, you can find another one – a much better one. Start your own business. Focus on the things you always wanted. Take some time off to find yourself and your meaning. And most importantly, learn from the experience – no matter how awful and dreadful it seems.
Even if there seemingly isn’t a positive thing to be found in something that just happened – say, decease of a relative. Stoics don’t focus on such matters. On events that cannot be undone. They center their attention on their opinion.
“If your opinions cause you distress, change your opinions,” is mentioned a lot in the book.
While it’s surely hard to practice this mantra when unfortunate events come knocking on your door, it’s the most logical and reasonable thing to do.
If something bad occurs, find the positive side to tune your mind. That’s the only way you can keep going and keep your sanity.
Lesson #5: You Have Three Responsibilities In LIfe
While we push hard to gain more friends and more followers online, we often forget to nurture the relationships that truly matter in life. And I’m not talking about our real friends and family members (though these too matter), I’m talking about the relationship we have with our body, the universe in general, and with other human beings as a whole.
Marcus Aurelius points out that we have three responsibilities in life, based on the three relationships above, that are of major importance:
- To be a reasonable person.
- To accept what happens to you.
- To be generous to others.
Here’s a little more guidance to attend these three responsibilities:
- Act with reason: By default, our first response to everything is emotional. Someone just cut you off? You get angry. Your favorite show was canceled? You start crying. If you learn to pause your sensations and act with reason you’ll become a much better decision-maker.
- Amor fati: This is a principle confessed by all Stoics. In translation, amor fati means “love of fate.” Or in other words, to accept what happens to you no matter how difficult or horrifying. A true master can turn painful, humiliating events, into a beautiful piece of art.
- Generosity to others: Part of your stay here is to help others thrive. Aid them in their journey but expect nothing in return. The act of help is its own reward.
“And so you have three responsibilities: First, to use your reason to master your body and make right judgments; second, to gratefully accept all that happens in the universe; third, to treat all people with justice and generosity.”
- Expect less: Especially from others. Aurelius writes: “If you expect an ignorant person to act like a knowledgeable one, that’s your mistake.” Do everything in your power to teach the people around you but don’t assume wonders. At the end of the day, you control only yourself.
- Your mind is in control: If you take away all of your possessions, the fancy toys you so vividly aspire, the people around you, you’re left with a body composed of flesh and bones. But these things are nothing without the brain. Your arms and legs are obedient to your mind. Therefore, the main objective should be to direct your thoughts towards something worthy. This way the rest of the body will follow.
- Manage your opinion: Along the way, distressful things will occur. If you act as you’re the victim, you won’t do much to make progress. You’ll feel pain but won’t do anything to change it. In this case, your thoughts are causing you pain. Fortunately, you can easily correct this. How? By changing your opinion. By re-framing the events happening in your head. The moment you switch from “I”m the victim” to “I can do something about this,” the sooner you’ll feel better.
- Focus on improving yourself: The only thing you can control in life is yourself – your own body and mind. There’s no point in trying to convince others of your rightfulness. So, essentially, your main duty should be to get better at what you do. Get better in your work and as a person. That’s the best way you can spend your time.
- Become independent: The more you rely on other people and on tools to do your work, the more dependent you’ll become. Swordsman in the past were easy prey when they lost their swords. Wrestlers, on the other hand, are people who count only on their fists to beat the opponent. Aspire to become a wrestler – an independent person who relies only on his own capabilities.
Commentary and My Personal Takeaway
The opportunity to hop inside the mind of this great man who lived more than 2000 years ago is magical.
In the book, Marcus Aurelius teaches us how to become just, righteous, reasonable human beings who get up every day with a desire to make the world a better place.
One of his struggles, after reading this short book, I believe, is the lack of people who shared his world views. That’s probably one of the reasons he kept writing in his diary. To find clarity. To remain sane while surrounded by injustice and illogical people.
The ultimate lesson in the book is the following: Happiness is a byproduct of thinking and acting in ways that are just, generous, resolute, purposeful, and free of a desire for lust and more physical things. If you find meaningful tasks in your life and abstract yourself from things that are outside of your power, you’ll live a healthy and aspiring life.
This present moment is all the life we ever have. The longest life and the shortest converge on this same point. No matter how many years stretch behind or in front of us, the present moment remains the same.” Marcus Aurelius
Like a horse after running a race, or a bee after making honey, a good person doesn’t stop and look around for applause or rewards. They go on to produce another good deed, as a vine produces more grapes in season.” Marcus Aurelius
Am I unhappy because of what happened to me? No. I remain happy because, regardless of circumstances, I am free—neither crushed by the present nor afraid of the future.” Marcus Aurelius
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