Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, and The Benefits of Stoic Journaling
Why have the meditations be so revered in recent times? Why do they matter?
Marcus Aurelius, as you undoubtedly know, was a Roman emperor — the last of those now called the Five Good Emperors — who ruled over the Roman Empire from 161-180 CE. He’s best remembered for a thing he never intended for public remembering: a collection of journals we now refer to as a singular work: the Meditations.
Roman historians, however, remember him more robustly, specifically for the great number of unique challenges he had to overcome during his 19-years as Emperor. There were at least five such challenges:
The Antonine Plague: a pandemic that broke out in the empire in 165 CE and lasted for several years, killing millions of people, including Marcus Aurelius' co-emperor (and adopted brother) Lucius Verus.
The Parthian War: a conflict between the Roman Empire and the Parthian Empire, which lasted from 161 to 166 CE. Marcus Aurelius led the Roman forces in this war, which resulted in the capture of the Parthian capital, Ctesiphon.
The Germanic Invasions: During his reign, there were several invasions by Germanic tribes along the Danube frontier, which threatened the stability of the Roman Empire.
The Roman-British War: In 180 CE, towards the end of Marcus Aurelius' reign, there was a major rebellion in Britain led by the governor of the province, which required significant military intervention to suppress.
The Tiber River Flood: In 162 CE, there was a major flood that caused significant damage to Rome and the surrounding areas, including the destruction of several buildings and infrastructure. Marcus Aurelius responded by providing relief and aid to the affected areas and initiated a program of public works to improve Rome's infrastructure and prevent future floods.
Take a moment to think about what a short amount of time 19-years is, and then notice the overlapping nature of these catastrophes. The Antonine Plague broke out just as the Parthian War ended. The Tiber River flooded just a year into that war. The Germanic invasions were on-going and, just as we think our man Marcus will get a reprieve for at least the last year of his reign, the Roman-British war begins. There was seemingly no escape for Marcus until, that is, he contracted the plague himself and died in 180.
Marcus was also on the battlefield, he wasn’t at home eating grapes and enjoying spoils, he was out, for lack of a better phrase, in the shit — and he didn’t have to be, he chose to be because he saw it as his responsibility and role. Without even considering the Meditations, it is clear to most everyone that Marcus Aurelius was unique among emperors in character, resolve, and involvement. He most certainly deserves to be considered “one of the good ones.”
But why do we care about his meditations?
In addition to the empire-specific catastrophes listed above, Marcus also lost all but one of his sons during his lifetime, had an unfaithful wife, and lost his father at a young age. Nothing about this guy’s life was gentle or “fair” — he was Emperor, of course, but dead kids, an unfaithful wife, prematurely lost parents, and succumbing to a plague on the warfront isn’t somehow made “more fair” by power or money. And yet, some how, Marcus never took the easy way out, was completely uncorrupted, and ruled over his people as a “Philosopher King”.
How the hell does someone manage not to become a total asshole after this much struggle, this much loss, this ever-constant testing by fate? Especially when it is all too easy to become corrupt and terrible?
The reasons we care about the Meditations so much is that they do three things:
They provide insight as to what Marcus was thinking, and answer the question “How did he navigate all this stuff? How did he keep his cool in the middle of all this madness?”
They are one of the most well-preserved, surviving Stoic texts and allow us to extrapolate from earlier fragments — they fill in some practical blanks and
They show the value of a reflective journaling practice — these Meditations must have been part of how Marcus stayed focused… or, at least, they show the thinking that helped him stay focused
Journaling and Prosochē: The Reason Journaling Matters
You may already know the term Prosochē — the “practice of paying attention”, the only way to know what you’re doing and why. Do you think Journaling about your thoughts and ideas help you to pay attention to your thoughts and ideas?
Well of course they do! You’re thinking about them and writing them out, aren’t you? Couldn’t do that if weren’t paying attention to them, could you?
A couple of months ago I had a conversation with Mitch Leventhal (College of Stoic Philosophers) and during that conversation he said something I hadn’t heard before. He said, “Prosochē is the test”.
Learn all you want about Stoicism, all day long if you like, but all that knowledge is as useless as an ashtray on a motorbike if you’re not putting it into practice!
The Meditations show us the mind of a man capable of carrying on for the good of his people in spite of many reasons to quit, or leave it to someone else. Perhaps it can do something less grand, but still important, for ourselves.
Life is hard, we’ve all got challenges. I have my own as a content creator, you may have your own as a mother (for example), and others still may have them as a student or a nurse or an electrician, we don’t need any more challenges in our lives than we already have — there are plenty to keep us busy — what we need, instead, is a way of keeping our eye on the prize (whatever that prize is to us, whatever matters most to us, which we hope, as Stoics, is a virtuous character).
The Meditations were a way for Marcus to keep his eye on the prize, and daily journaling (daily paying attention) may be that for us.
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Please don't take this the wrong way, but can you please change the layout from white on black to something else? For some reason, white text on a black background makes it difficult for me to read, especially when I scroll. Not sure if anyone else is also facing this. Thanks!