In Part 1 of this review of Meditations, the Stoic principles of Objective Perception, Taking Action and Living in the Moment were discussed. The first two in order are the best way to get started with any challenge or endeavor. Always be cognizant of the need to remain objective and dispassionate. Maintain a clear head, analyze things from an arm’s length and keep your emotions out of it. Once you have assessed the situation as you might recommend for a close friend or loved one to do, begin to take the proper action to resolve the problem or achieve your goal.
Many times in life, solutions and achievements can take a very long time to attain; years in many cases. Patience is often a necessary virtue for success. One of the secrets to remaining patient as a strategy for embracing your pursuits is to learn to live in the present moment. It will allow for better focus, diminish anxiety and will lead to tranquility of the mind. This is a skill that can be learned if it is brought to the fore of your consciousness and flagged as a priority. The mind is unique in the fact that it can train and develop itself for superior function. The Stoics realized this and it is certainly why Marcus Aurelius made it a point to work on his ability to Live in the Moment through the exercise of his writings in Meditations.
Beyond the foundation of Perception, Action and the Present Moment, three longer term principles are also repeatedly written about in Meditations: Perseverance, Acquiescence and Perfection of Character.
Taking the proper action and living in the moment will get you out of the gate and headed in the right direction, but persevering with the guidance of good character will be necessary for long term success in man’s life. And properly when properly applied, acquiescence can be very useful for long term mental endurance and strategic survival.
Let us review and discuss the Emperor’s views on these three Stoic principles, necessary in the life of a superior man.
–Not to assume it’s impossible because you find it hard. But to recognize that if it’s humanly possible, you can do it too.
–Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it—turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself—so, too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal.
Even Marcus Aurelius, the great Emperor of Rome found it necessary to remind himself to persevere. Try to imagine the amount of power a historical figure like this must have had. All it would have taken for anything he desired was a simple wave of the finger. And yet perseverance is a constant theme throughout Meditations. It is obvious, as with many of the other Stoic principles he wrote about, to persevere in his endeavors was of tremendous importance.
Perseverance is one of those principles which are simple in nature, but not necessarily easy in execution. Most of us usually have no problem getting started in some cause, but as time rolls on and resistance remains the mind often seems to find a convenient way out. As the luster and excitement of a new pursuit wanes so does one’s conviction. The human psyche has a tremendous capacity to rationalize failure. And very often there is no price to pay for not taking action. To the contrary, very often the opposite is true. Being proactive can create even more resistance and adversity.
As an astute student of Stoicism, Marcus Aurelius apparently took keen notice of these tendencies. The first step for him then, the same as it is for us, was to place an explicit emphasis on perseverance. And as we can see in his writings, he did so over and over again. Reading and internalizing the concepts he repeatedly wrote down will do the same for us. Follow his example and bring this essential character trait to the fore of your mind and make it part of your essence.
Perseverance then, is proper action taken all the way to a desired result. It is not just a quick start with the best of intentions and then a fade into the path of least resistance, but something much more. Pure unadulterated will must be added to the mix. Persistence and searing willpower over the long term are what make for true perseverance. Read and follow the Aurelius example and you will acquire the stubborn unrelenting mindset that is necessary to break through the many barriers that will arise in any worthwhile pursuit.
–To love only what happens, what was destined. No greater harmony.
–Something happens to you. Good. It was meant for you by nature, woven into the pattern from the beginning. Life is short. That’s all there is to say. Get what you can from the present—thoughtfully, justly.
On the surface, the term acquiescence would seem like the polar opposite of perseverance. And in many respects it is, and thus contradictory in a sense. After all, to acquiesce in the face of an obstacle can indeed be a form of giving up when one could certainly continue to persevere. But as with many circumstances in life the reality is very often not so black and white. There are always different contexts to consider. The key as a Stoic here is not to use acquiescence as an excuse to quit when there is still a path to be had. One must never give way if there is still the possibility of success in a worthwhile endeavor.
In its broadest sense, Marcus Aurelius employed the concept of Stoic Acquiescence as means to accept his circumstances; to accept them with grace and humility, no matter how unpleasant or difficult. Acceptance as such does not mean to roll over or give up. To the contrary, as we have seen above, a Stoic will always employ objective perception and pursue proper action in response to adversity. A Roman Stoic was a man of action and hardened character, just as we should be today if we wish to conquer our pursuits.
Once in a while, however, a challenge cannot realistically be overcome. These are situations where there is no possibility of success. No amount pride, effort and perseverance will win the day. Sometimes in life a battle cannot be won. In these cases, the smart decision is to acquiesce and move on. Unless your intention is martyrdom, a better course of action is to acquiesce and live to fight another day. Take what you can from the situation, gather yourself and move on. There is always another path to success. The smart man will put aside his pride in the short term, in favor of succeeding over the long term.
So follow the example of Emperor Aurelius and learn to accept what life sends your way as a matter of fate. Spending any of your mental reserves in anguish is a waste of time and energy. What good will it do you to spin your misfortune over and over in your mind anyway? Just because your mind tells you something is bad does not mean you have to accept it as so. It is not wise to waste any of your emotional capacity in mental turmoil. The Stoic response would be to employ objective perception and then respond appropriately. And if your objective analysis tells you that you are in a no win situation, step aside or go around and move on.
Perfection of Character
–Perfection of character: to live your last day, every day, without frenzy, or sloth, or pretense.
–Concentrate on what you have to do. Fix your eyes on it. Remind yourself that your task is to be a good human being; remind yourself what nature demands of people. Then do it, without hesitation, and speak the truth as you see it. But with kindness. With humility. Without hypocrisy.
The most impressive aspect to the writings of Marcus Aurelius from this author’s perspective is his frequent emphasis on perfection of character. Just as with perseverance, it speaks tremendously to the intrinsic makeup of the man. After all, as Emperor of Rome, the maxim that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” must have been always just a few small alluring steps away. The man could have or do pretty much anything humanly possible if he had wanted to. And in fact, many of his predecessors and successors did indeed immerse themselves in a shallow hedonistic existence, drunk on power.
In parallel to his emphasis on perseverance, Marcus Aurelius must have been keenly aware of the perils and seduction of absolute power. Most of us, of course, will never have to deal with anywhere near the level of temptation associated with the rule of an empire. However, it will certainly benefit men living in the modern day to follow this same emphasis on perfection of character. Today’s world is fraught with easy and barrier free shallow distractions; the kind that can become insidious and destructive to a man’s character over time.
No matter what mistakes you might have made or what your current circumstance, there is no better pursuit for a man than the perfection of his character. And there is no better time to start than right now. Doing so will pervade and revolutionize your whole life. And by its very nature it will include all of the other Stoic principles already discussed. As we see in his many his reflections, Marcus Aurelius would very often layer several Stoic principles when focused on the perfection of his own character.
Taking proper action and persevering for example, was always to be done with good character in mind. Consider there are many men from history and in the present day that will maintain a dispassionate temperament and take very deliberate action. But they will do so without any consideration for good values and perfection of character. Very often, the ends will justify the means. And just as often, these same ends will be of malevolent intent.
Stoicism would say this is against the logos (nature) and will thus eventually imperil you as the agent. I agree with this line of thinking. If you do wrong and go against the natural order, there will be a price to pay in the long run; if not in this life, then certainly in the next. My advice would be to follow the admirable example of Marcus Aurelius and live your life as a man of action doing what is right. Resist the temptation to sully your character for transient benefit. Be courageous and set the bar high. You will never regret taking the high road, no matter how difficult it may be.
Read It and Then Read It Again
Meditations can be a life changer gentlemen. Do yourself a favor and read the book from cover to cover twice. And then make it a point to pick it up again for a full read every six months. Internalize the great Emperor’s thinking and make it your own. Doing so will allow you to walk through life with an incredibly hardy mindset.
Eventually you’ll find what used to knock you off your feet can be simply be brushed aside as something to be handled as a matter of fact. And as you realize your newfound mental prowess it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Every time you overcome, it will be a reinforcement that will continue to hard code your efficient and highly adaptive thinking.
As a superior man, take every advantage you can and learn to leverage the work of other great men. Never stop developing your mind and continue on your path to personal greatness—you will justify your life and be better prepared to fight the good fight all the way to the end.
All the best,