Marcus Aurelius guided his life with rational thought and reason developed from self-awareness and deep reflection of the world around him. As the Roman Emperor he recorded his thoughts in a journal that would be published as the book Meditations, giving us a chance to see the world through the eyes of a stoic focused on better understanding himself and his place in the world. The advice he left himself is advice we can still use today. His recommendations surrounding the actions and decisions we make is simple, but can have powerful impacts in our lives.
“First, do nothing inconsiderately, nor without a purpose. Second, Make thy acts refer to nothing else than to a social end.” Aurelius explains in this brief section that our actions should be well thought out, intentional, and meant to in one way provide a societal benefit. Actions that we make in a rash manner or actions that only benefit ourselves are not going to help us grow and improve, and they will not better those around us.
When Aurelius uses the word inconsiderately, he refers to the idea of thoughtfully thinking through our actions. He is not just advising us to avoid actions that are not nice for other people, but rather he is encouraging us not to act without first thinking deeply. Building this into our lives today could mean something along the lines of thinking about why we want to eat a bag of chips before we grab one, whether we will just walk past an empty water bottle in the street, or if we will spend our time watching television or doing something more productive. His encouragement to be considerate equates to us being more thoughtful and less impulsive in our actions, and to us spending more time finding ways to help others.
Continuing with this quote and the Emperor’s idea that all of our actions should be done with a purpose and toward a social end, we begin to reshape our purpose on this planet. Our actions should be performed with the greatest focus and intent, and the end result should benefit not just ourselves, but our entire society. When we look for ways to help out everyone and not just ourselves it becomes easier to put a full effort into our work. If our work is incomplete or poorly executed, it is not just us but society that suffers. Aurelius’ advice is to think about the actions and decisions we are making at any moment, reflect to see how our actions could be more beneficial for society, and to execute on our actions.
In Meditations Marcus Aurelius explains his philosophy of the world that would later come to be understood as an approach to stoicism. He shows us the benefits of deep thought and reflection, and guides us through a process of self-awareness to help us control our actions and thoughts in the face of adversity, success, or and everyday occurrences. One of his suggestions which resonated with me was a short sentence about justice and fairness, “The best way of avenging thyself is not to become like the wrong doer.” In this simple sentence Aurelius shows us the importance of acting on our own with integrity, and of acting with a clear focus to avoid worsening ourselves through our reactions to being harmed.
The quote also reminds me of California Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s dissent against the use of military force in Afghanistan in 2001 in which she quoted a member of the clergy who spoke at a 9/11 memorial service the morning of her vote. Representative Lee encouraged her fellow members of congress to be less volatile and more tempered in their response to the terror attacks on September 11th, 2001 and she ended her speech by saying, “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.” Her quote ties in with Aurelius by focusing on standing tall in the face of adversity and not allowing ourselves to be continually harmed by a single instance of evil. As I have written in the past
, Aurelius built his stoic mindset through self-reflection and control, striving to “be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames he fury of the water around it.” By choosing how we will react to the negative we have the power to improve ourselves and our fortunes, or we have the ability to abandon our will and allow ourselves to devolve to the same evil which we seek to overcome.
If we wish to become better people then we must understand that revenge is not something that we best achieve through violence or the destruction of the other, but rather through deeper understanding, communication, and mutual respect for the other. We can surpass our base reaction and become better than that which tries to harm us by remembering what President Lincoln said, “Have I not destroyed an enemy when I make him a friend?”
Chris Kraus wrote a letter for James Harmon to include in his book, Take My Advice. In her letter Kraus writes about being called “an obsessive” and she shares the story of a French poet Antonin Artuad whose poetry was rejected by a revered French magazine editor. She sets up his story to explain what it means to be obsessed by something, and how writing helps us build our dialog and communication skills. One section of her writing that I particularly liked was a short sentence that brought back my focus of awareness and exploration, “Nothing exists without a source.” Writes Kraus, “It is important to Contextualize everything.”
I do believe that sometimes in our lives we can become too caught up in trying to understand the deeper meaning, the hidden thoughts that lead to action, or any ulterior motive behind another persons words or actions, but in general, I think we often view the world through a superficial lens. In our romantic relationships we evaluate every word, text message, phone call, and winky face sent to us as if we were hired crime scene detectives, at least when we first start dating, but we quickly begin to make assumptions about our loved one and return to a comfortable place where we quit looking for the deeper meaning that influenced our actions and those of our companion.
In her letter, Kraus used Artuad’s life story to show that we can find deeper meaning in the world when we work to better understand the context of the world around that which we focus on. In order to truly understand something we must know where it came from, what influenced its origin, and what purpose it was supposed to serve. By taking a microscope to a situation we can make better judgements and begin to see the multiple perspectives surrounding a single event. The better we become at this the more we will be able to connect with others, and the more patience and compassion we can develop for those who deserve it.