Last year, I set a goal to read at least two books a month. Motivated by our life writing class teacher, who fed us with book suggestions on a weekly basis to deepen the topics we discussed in class, I started reading again. I had always loved reading but somehow neglected it in the past years. There was always something else to do and – as I often thought – I did not have enough time in the day to get everything done. Then, I decided to make reading a priority in my day, and, voilà, I managed to read more. The more I read, the more I enjoyed it.
To keep a record of my reading progress, I manifested my intention in Goodreads, where you can sort books on three bookshelves: Want to Read, Reading, and Read. Every time I had finished a book, I published it on Goodreads. Unfortunately, I could not post the German books that I read in between the English ones, as Goodreads is an American platform and does not list any German books. At the end of the year, I had read 44 English books plus a couple of German ones.
Often, while reading one book, the author mentioned other books that were related to the topic. So, it happened that I came across Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.
Marcus Aurelius was born in AD 121 to a prominent Roman family and became the emperor in AD 161, when the state was at the zenith of its power, which was a challenging time. He had to cope with “ugly border disputes, unreliable warlords and attempted coup d’état.” His private life was not less challenging; he lost his wife and had a difficult relationship with his son. He died at the age of 59 in AD 180.
However, he was an avid reader since his childhood and started writing down his thoughts when he was in his fifties. In his Meditations, he reflects on living, dying, and the good life, as the subtitle of this little guide – slightly larger than a mobile phone – explains.
I loved reading these reflections on life and how to deal with adversity and everything life throws at us on a daily basis. It is a great book to have at the bedside table or take with you when travelling. Especially, if you had a hard day or are frustrated about yourself or other people, you will find words of solace and motivation in the twelve books of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, written almost 2,000 years ago but as valid today as he had just jotted them down yesterday.
Here are ten of my favourite reflections of the Roman emperor:
1. People try to get away from it all – to the country, to the beach, the the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like. By going within. Nowhere you can go more peaceful – more free of interruptions – than your own soul. Especially if you have other things to rely on. An instant’s recollection and there it is: complete tranquility. And by tranquility I mean a kind of harmony.
2. If you seek tranquility, do less. Or (more accurately) do what’s essential – what the logos of a social being requires, and in the requisite way. Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better.
3. You have seen that. Now look at this. Don’t be disturbed. Uncomplicated yourself. Someone has done wrong … to himself. 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. Unrestrained moderation.
4. What happens to each of us is ordered. It furthers our destiny.
5. Look inward. Don’t let the true nature or value of anything elude you.
6. When you need encouragement, think of the qualities the people around you have: this one’s energy, that one’s modesty, another’s generosity, and so on. Nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visible embodied in the people around us, when we’re practically showered with them. It’s good to keep this in mind.
7. Practise really hearing what people say. Do your best to get inside their minds.
8. To stop talking what the good man is like, and just be one.
9. Practise even what seems impossible.
10. Whatever happens to you has been waiting to happen since the beginning of time. The twining strands of fate wove both of them together: your own existence and the things that happen to you.
The ten reflections are excerpts from Meditations - Living, Dying and the Good Life by Marcus Aurelius. Translated by Gregory Hays. Published by Phoenix, London, 2004.