One of life’s difficulties is remembering our past experiences. We struggle to recall what we were doing a couple of years ago. We read a book or watch a documentary, then a few months later find ourselves barely be able to remember its key points.
Over the years a number of practices have emerged to fight this amnesia. Diaries and journals have long been popular as a record of events. In 17th century Europe, keeping a commonplace book – an intellectual scrapbook of quotes, information, ideas and thoughts – was a recognised practice. Today we might take photos or videos, or write a blog.
Meditations is one such device – a collection of aphorisms, insights and observations written by Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius to remind himself how to live.
Meditations was never intended to be published or read by others. Even the title is unlikely to be original; Aurelius probably gave it no title at all. The short passages that comprise the work are haphazardly spread across twelve books with little to unify them. Nevertheless, a number of themes emerge.
Aurelius was heavily influenced by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, in particular his idea of the “three disciplines” of perception, action and will. The discipline of perception is about remaining aware of the difference between an event and the interpretation we place on it. Translator Gregory Hays provides an example:
“For example, my impression that my house has just burned down is simply that— an impression or report conveyed to me by my senses about an event in the outside world. By contrast, my perception that my house has burned down and I have thereby suffered a terrible tragedy includes not only an impression, but also an interpretation imposed upon that initial impression. It is by no means the only possible interpretation, and I am not obliged to accept it. I may be a good deal better off if I decline to do so. It is, in other words, not objects and events but the interpretations we place on them that are the problem. Our duty is therefore to exercise stringent control over the faculty of perception, with the aim of protecting our mind from error.”
Having seen things for what they are, the discipline of action is about taking responsibility for those things that are in our control. In contrast, the discipline of will is about accepting the things that are outside our control, done to us by nature or by others.
Meditations is not a philosophy of how to enjoy life, but of how to get through it with minimal suffering. Its advice is unflinchingly practical. At times it’s grim and pessimistic, infused with a sense of the shortness of life. Not for nothing did Alexander Percy refer to it as “the unassailable wintry kingdom of Marcus Aurelius”.