Written as a personal diary of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, the most powerful man in the known areas of the world at the time, never intended for the public. The author keeps personal notes for himself, written in the manner of Stoicism, constantly reminding himself of his mortality and insignificance, along with the required actions to stay humble and clear-headed despite the immense power he possessed as the Roman emperor.
Marcus Aurelius was an emperor of Rome between 161 and 180 A.D. and was the only know philosopher among the Roman emperors. As a philosopher, he is the most famous as a practitioner of Stoicism, a philosophy developed in ancient Greece in the 3rd century B.C. and carried over to Rome through the works of Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.
As only Roman writings on Stoicism survived to this day, Aurelius’ records present one of the most significant preserved thoughts on this philosophical branch. However, Aurelius’ intention wasn’t to share his writings with anyone else, but luckily they were found and preserved.
His most important writings on Stoicism are the ones presented in “Meditations,” a collection of his personal accounts written during the later period of his life and the time of his rulership of Rome. Aurelius never intended to share these writings with anyone – this was his diary with a purpose to remind him of the basic principles of life he obliged and needed to remind himself about constantly.
The book is valuable for another reason – it is a unique collection of personal thoughts and teachings of the Roman emperor, the most powerful figure in the known part of the world at the time. Aurelius took notes mostly at night as a means to keep himself reminded of the most important concepts of life and their meaning and purpose.
“Meditations” consist of 12 chapters that are not connected in any meaningful way but are instead a collection of sentences and short paragraphs written by the author for himself. In it, Aurelius explores the most important concepts of Stoic philosophy, which he repeatedly reminds himself about throughout the book.
The most frequent ideas explored in the book are the ones of mortality and shortness of life, constant change in the world surrounding us, accepting the shortcomings of others and understanding that all violence and pain directed towards other people comes solely from ignorance, restraining yourself from the influence of fame and pleasure, and ultimately accepting the natural course of things and living according to nature.
What does the book promise to deliver?
“Meditations” is one of the most prominent books on Stoicism written by one of the most recognizable Stoic philosophers and the emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius. Through 12 chapters, the reader will get an insight into the head of Aurelius throughout the different times of his rule, spanning 19 years and including both peaceful times and war.
As the author didn’t intend this diary to be seen or read by anyone aside from himself, the book doesn’t follow any chronological order but is instead a collection of thoughts and personal struggles of Aurelius, who constantly reminds himself of the basic principles of Stoic philosophy that he was highly dedicated to.
Considering Aurelius was the only philosopher among the Roman emperors, this book is a unique historical record. Readers will get an insight into the head of the most powerful man in the world at that time and how he tried to keep himself humble, grounded, and aware of his fallacies and mortality while holding an immense power in his hands.
The tone of the book
“Meditation” is a unique diary of the only Roman emperor who also practiced philosophy and is written in the first-person point of view. Since Aurelius collected his thoughts, most challenges and struggles he faced during his reign, and how to overcome them by utilizing basic Stoic principles, the book doesn’t follow any logical or chronological path.
Instead, readers could open “Meditations” on any random page and start reading from there, and the book would be equally valuable and understandable. This made some readers compare the book with the Bible, arguing that it holds value to the reader regardless of the point in which the reader decided to open it.
The book’s structure is simple – it’s a collection of thoughts and instructions on how to utilize basic Stoic principles in everyday life and constantly remind yourself of your mortality, staying humble and devoted to the task at hand. “Meditations” have a form of a religious book in the way it’s written, as the reader will find phrases and messages that the author repeatedly reminded himself of, giving the text a prayer-like quality and serving as a mantra to be read aloud over and over again.
What also strikes the reader is that the tone of the book is very humbling, considering that it’s coming from a figure with immense or even absolute power in the greatest empire of that time. And since it was meant for his eyes only, it’s clear that Aurelius truly believed in the words he laid out in this book, which most of the readers agree would be unimaginable in the modern world.
What type of reader would enjoy this book?
Regarded as one of the most important writings on Stoic philosophy, this book is a must-read for anyone interested in gaining knowledge on this way of living. Even though Aurelius never intended to share these writings with anyone, with the great introduction that the book provides, anyone fond of Stoicism will enjoy reading this book.
Historical circumstances during which this book was written, a time when Rome fought some tough wars to defend its borders, give the book additional value considering it’s coming from a man in charge of the empire during this period. This will be especially interesting to history lovers, having a chance to get into the mind of the most powerful man of the time and how he tried to cope with all the benefits and challenges that come with the crown.
How well does “Meditations” compare with other titles in this field?
“Meditations” is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most important books on Stoic philosophy, and the author Marcus Aurelius stands among the most influential Stoic philosophers. His writings remain an immensely valuable source of knowledge of this philosophical branch almost 2 millennia after his death.
By its structure and historical importance, “Meditations” is often compared with the works of another Roman philosopher, one that had a significant influence on Marcus Aurelius and his views of the world, Epictetus. 2 books that contain his teachings are “The Manual,” the interpretation of his speeches by Sam Torode, and “Handbook,” which contains a collection of his original speeches written down by his students and followers.
“Meditations” compares well against other essential books on Stoicism, including the writings of Seneka, another prominent Stoic, most of all “Letters From a Stoic.” From the modern writers inspired by Marcus Aurelius and Stoic philosophy, readers can find value in “Epictetus’ Discourses and Selected Writings” by Robert F. Dobbin and “The Daily Stoic” by Ryan Holiday.
Some readers compared Aurelius’ work with “Tao Te Ching” by ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi, one of the most significant texts on Taoism. The structure of both texts is similar as they’re both collections of short but powerful statements and instructions on how to approach life.
The audiobook version of “Meditations” is narrated by Duncan Steen, with a duration of 5 hours and 9 minutes. The overall impression of the listeners was very positive, with high praise for the narrator’s tone and interpretations of the ancient text.
Steen’s narration reflects the emotional and psychological patterns of Stoicism, and readers feel like his voice is immersed into the narrative perfectly. Even though Marcus Aurelius never spoke British, readers could easily imagine being there with him through the narrator’s words.
Steen’s voice is perceived as “commanding,” sounding like a soldier, and reflects the dignity of a ruler that Marcus Aurelius was. They found it very easy to imagine Aurelius while listening to the book, and the narrator’s use of some archaic words and phrases intensifies that experience.
What do readers say about “Meditations”?
Always coming back to it
The consensus among the readers is that “Meditations” is the type of book that keeps the reader continuously engaged. Even though brief and concise in nature, they find the book’s content powerful and profound, the kind that forces them to think about its messages and that repeatedly makes them want to read it over and over again.
Considering the book’s structure and the fact that the 12 chapters are not connected in any chronological way, readers found it very easy to open this book at any spot and find value on each page. This is also a reason why people find it so easy to keep coming back to this book and why a lot of them keep it on their nightstand or in a bag/purse to read it at the bus station or in a waiting room.
Get into the mind of the Roman emperor
People that understand the historical context and circumstances during the time of the creation of this book appreciate the significance of having a chance to get into the mind of the most powerful figure in the world at a time, a Roman emperor who’s struggling and fighting not just against the raising threat to his empire, but also against his inner demons and doubts.
Since Marcus Aurelius was the only philosopher among the Roman emperors, most of the readers feel privileged to be able to read his thoughts and try to understand the position he was in, his daily struggles and responsibilities, and how he tried to stay focused on the job and keep himself humble while holding such an immense amount of power in his hands.
Relevant even to this day
Even though “Meditations” were written during the second century AD, most of its core messages resonate with the readers almost two millennia after Aurelius marked his words in his diary. There is no reader that didn’t find at least one maxim from this book valuable and applicable to their life, and most of them agree that Aurelius’ messages remain relevant today as they were at the time of the writing.
Even readers who were not familiar or not much interested in Stoic philosophy had high praise for this book, both for its content and the fact that they had a chance to take a peek at the writings never intended for anyone else aside for the author himself.
Learn about the struggles of running an empire
Some of the maxims written by Marcus Aurelius appear multiple times across the book, which some readers find a bit boring and repetitive. However, most of the readers understand that the more the author repeats a phrase in the book, the more he tries to remind and convince himself of the words he is writing at the moment.
Things that concern mortality, the importance of accepting everything that life brings, and understanding that violence comes from ignorance are repeatedly mentioned throughout the book, and the readers quickly realize that these were the things that the author needed to keep reminding himself about, using repetition as a form of mantra or prayer to memorize and accept the words he was writing down.
Familiar messages and connections between the stories
The primary critique of the book among some of the readers was the fact that the messages communicated in this book were not revolutionary in any way. They argue that it’s everything that they already heard and know about, and they couldn’t find a lot of new value in this book because of that.
Several readers also didn’t like the fact that the 12 chapters in the book are not connected in any way but are instead a seemingly random collection of sayings. They felt like the book lacked a plot, something that would connect its individual parts and make it whole and more meaningful.