Meditations was probably never intended to be published. It consists of Marcus Aurelius’s private thoughts and reflections. Today, it’s regarded as a classic of Stoic thinking.
But, what does that mean for the Sovereign Professional?
I would argue that stoicism provides a solid philosophy that is wholly relevant to the inevitable turmoil of individual toil.
The Daily Stoic site offers this definition of stoicism:
The philosophy asserts that virtue (such as wisdom) is happiness and judgment be based on behavior, rather than words. That we don’t control and cannot rely on external events, only ourselves and our responses.
That second sentence is key. We “cannot rely on external events, only ourselves and our responses.”
If you want to be sovereign, you recognise that your fate is in your own hands. Equally, you are no self-pitying victim. You don’t control external events, but you certainly control your response.
Marcus Aurelius, no passive, other-worldly sage in rags is a perfect role model. He was the most important and most powerful person in the known world. When he became emperor, Rome (as Republic and Empire) had stood for over 600 years. Sometimes, we talk of Ancient Rome like we do Victorian Britain or Soviet Russia; we forget it lasted a thousand years (in the west, and a further millennium, to 1453, in the east). Meditations tells us that Aurelius was a practising Stoic. His notes are not original philosophy. They are reflections and reminders, notes-to-self and admonitions. Indeed, the historian Mary Beard argues:
If a text like this were to be discovered today in the sands of Egypt, not tied to the name of an emperor, we would almost certainly interpret it as a set of fairly routine philosophical exercises – the kind of thing that a philosophically trained member of the Roman elite would compose to keep himself in good intellectual shape.
Meditations is Aurelius’ workbook, not his textbook. That’s where the value lies: practical philosophy for real life. Remarkably relevant and contemporary, despite being 1,800 years old.
Aurelius is a hero because he was a practitioner.
My own copies of Meditations have been the Penguin Great Ideas edition of a 1964 translation by Maxwell Staniforth, but I’m very tempted to try the recent Gregory Hays translation, as recommended, here.