Notes to Myself

There's an old and slightly snarky saying:

The only reason anyone reads (Insert title here) is to tell people they are reading (insert title here).

The titles in question are generally from this list:

And it's funny for a moment, and then just a little bit sad that we feel the need to criticize people for trying to learn from the past. Snark is getting old.

The point I'm trying to make is that I've held off on writing this post for a long time, specifically because I kind of fear that kind of ridicule. Which is, itself, ridiculous.

Anyway, about a year ago I read The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and they resonated with me strongly. Marcus was such a powerful figure externally. He led the Roman empire when it was still expanding, before it had started obviously crumbling under its own weight. But his Meditations are not finely crafted orations, a la Cicero. They are his notes to himself. And for some reason it was only when I started reading the Meditations for myself that I was made aware of that fact.

Which is crazy! Without this one fairly tiny piece of information the Meditations come off as judgmental and didactic. Marcus was writing notes to himself, reminding himself of the kind of person he wanted to be. So of course he wrote mostly in the imperative, and with a fairly stern tone.

But consider the things he was telling himself to do: (all quotes are from Robin Waterfield's translation)

Recall the notions that rational beings are on this earth to help one another, that tolerance is an aspect of justice, and that people don't deliberately do wrong. (Meditations Notebook 4§3, emphasis added)

The emperor of Rome is telling himself to be helpful and tolerant. Not two adjectives that are often applied to emperors or stoics in modern thought.

Indeed if we were to show Marcus what we call a 'stoic'—and here I'm thinking of “Stoic the Vast” in How to Train Your Dragon—he wouldn't recognize any of the qualities that he associates with stoicism:

Keep yourself simple, good, guileless, dignified, unpretentious, devoted to justice, pious, kind, affectionate to others, and resolute to carrying out your proper tasks. (ibid 6§30, emphasis added)

A Stoic in the vein of Marcus Aurelius is a person who cares deeply about others, who seeks to find the way they can best serve the world around them, focusing on the people who make up that world. They are not a vast uncaring and stony mountain of a person, without joy or kindness.

In my “Notes to Self” posts I'm being a bit more vain than Marcus. He wrote the books we call the Meditations for himself. There was never any plan to publish them. It was only after his death that they were gathered and disseminated. I'm actually publishing these thoughts that I have in the hope that someone else might get some utility out of them.

Lastly, I want to highlight some comments from the final book of Meditations. Marcus knew he was dying. His life had been hard, for all of him being an emperor. He had been on campaign far north of his Roman villa, he had been sick, the campaign was not his idea of a good time regardless.

In Notebook 12 it's clear he's aware of his coming demise. The following comment, again, made only to himself, highlights the pain he has, his imperfection and desire for something else:

How come the gods organized everything so well, and with the good of human beings in mind, and yet overlooked this one thing: that some men—perfectly good men...why is it that, when they die, they're not born again, but are completely and utterly extinguished? (ibid 12§5)

The ellipsis in that quote contain a list of good men that Marcus wished hadn't been “completely and utterly extinguished”. But to me it has always felt that he was, on some level, talking about himself.

Thoughts? Tell me about them!
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