Marcus Aurelius’ Stoic Exercise

Marcus Aurelius wrote his book Meditations not primarily for the general public. It was his personal book of philosophical exercises. Every once in a while he would add a passage or two, often during his military campaigns against the tribes that tried to invade his empire. Nowadays, the book can teach us a lot about the kind of exercises used by the Stoics.

When we read the text, we note that Marcus Aurelius seems to be talking to somebody. For example: “Every moment do what you have to do with perfect and simple dignity.” Or: “If you are pained by some external thing, it is not this that disturbs you…”

Who is Marcus Aurelius writing to? Who is his audience?

The answer is that he is writing to himself. Writing (perhaps in a contemplative mode) was his way of trying to animate his true self. According to the Stoics, our true self—our “daemon,” or guiding principle—is usually dormant, because it is suppressed by our psychological mechanisms. As a result, we are preoccupied with excessive desires, we sink into useless anxieties, we complain and curse, and we forget that these attitudes are irrational and destructive.

The Stoics realized that it takes a lot of hard work and persistence to awaken the true self, and keep it awake. To do so, Marcus Aurelius used a number of different exercises: He would reflect on the principles of Stoic philosophy and on how they can be applied to his everyday life. He would formulate rules of behavior and remind himself how to behave. He would write down ideas to entertain in his thoughts during the day, and images to keep in mind. He would remind himself to look at himself from the appropriate perspective—as a small, temporary creature in the big universe. He would formulate and reformulate ideas from the Stoic worldview (for example, that everything happens for a reason). And he would philosophize about these ideas, analyzing them and supporting them with reason. In this way he sought to keep his Stoic awareness fresh and awake.

In short, Marcus Aurelius used the power of ideas to inspire. Indeed, we all know that ideas can sometimes move us deeply, as long as they are alive in us. In the name of ideas—a call for justice, a social vision, a religious ideal, a humanistic goal—we can sometimes do great things (for better or for worse) with great efforts and sacrifice. But not always. Because at other times, our ideas become dormant, and although we still believe in them, they are no longer alive in us. They no longer inspire us to live in their light. Marcus Aurelius’ exercises were meant to keep his Stoic ideas alive in him.

Let us experiment with his exercises. Let us accept, for the sake of the exercise, the Stoic idea that the deep part of our self is capable of directing our lives in a meaningful way: It can give us the power and energy to overcome our familiar psychological mechanisms—our familiar anxieties, dissatisfactions, disquiet, possessiveness, anger, etc. And it can make our behavior and emotions peaceful, rational, and wise. Let’s use the following exercise in order to try to awaken this deep self to its full potential:

Choose a familiar kind of situation in which you are normally invaded by anxiety, or anger, a possessive desire, or other automatic reactions. Example are: the anxiety you may feel when you are late or under time-pressure; a sense of inferiority when you are with your boss; a desire for a cake or a cigarette that sometimes overcomes you; a need to control the conversation; a shyness that blocks you from talking in public; and so on.

Now, every day devote a few minutes to thinking about the situation you chose. Examine the situation from the perspective of the Stoic vision of life (for more details, see on this website Marcus Aurelius’ text, as well as the video). Then write in your notebook your reflections: what the Stoic principles tell you about this situation, the meaning of these principles and how they can be applied to your case, what ideas should guide your thoughts and feelings, what kinds of images or words you should entertain in your mind, how your behavior looks from the perspective of the larger picture, etc. Don’t engage in psychological analysis (e.g., analyzing your childhood). Contemplate on what the Stoic vision has to tell you, not on your psychological mechanisms. Focus, in other words, on your true self, not on your false self.

When the situation you selected appears again, observe your reactions, and see whether the Stoic exercise made a difference!

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