For the Ancients, philosophy was not only about discussions on the nature of the world, but primarily it was a very practical guide to living your daily life.
A “philosopher” was not only a person who talked about things, but also a person who tried to achieve a certain goal and live according to certain principles.
The philosophers of Antiquity did not see the point of ruminating on how the world works, if the lessons of what they learned were not going to be put into practice. What is the point of talking about stuff, if you are never going to take action?
The “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius were his personal notes and lessons, which he used as part of his system to put Stoic teachings into daily practice. These writings were meant as a way to strengthen his own resolve in a chaotic world, but since his time they have served as inspiration for the personal self-improvement systems of many successful people.
You don’t have to be a Stoic in order to benefit from what Marcus wrote. And there is really no need to implement everything that the Stoics taught, word for word. Instead, what I find beneficial is to pick and choose whatever fits your own personal circumstances.
Of course, this depends on what type of a person you are. Some people like to pick and choose (options), while others like to follow things to the letter (procedures). I am more on the options part of the spectrum and like to design my own things.
Other people prefer to get a complete system and apply it fully without changes. What you do at the end depends on your own personal preference.
What I outline below is my own interpretation of a system based on the teachings of Marcus Aurelius. As such, Marcus Aurelius did not develop a system of his own, instead he was applying principles that he learned from old Stoic masters.
What I am proposing here is something to help you put his thoughts into your daily practice. You can pick or choose from what I write, or you can follow it to the letter. It is up to you.
Please note that this is not a complete Stoic system. I just chose a few things from the Stoic way of doing things and combined it with some more modern findings.
If you want to implement a complete Stoic system into your own life, you should instead turn to the primary sources themselves, like those of Epictetus, or to books like “The Inner Citadel” by Pierre Hadot.
However, I find that combining the best parts of different systems and not being too rigid in their application is often the best way to go.
What is important for you to understand is that the later Stoics, such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, divided a person’s way of living into three spheres or disciplines: desire (will), action, and assent (perception).
Understanding this division is key to being able to create your own system based on the teachings of Marcus Aurelius and other Stoics and putting it into your daily routine.
In the discipline of desire, you need to keep in mind that there are things that are in your control and some that aren’t. However, many people base their lives on striving for things that are outside their control and often end up unhappy when they don’t get them.
The Stoics came up with the concept of “preferred indifferents”. These are things that you might want, but whether you get them is not always up to you. Among things like this could be money, good food or other things which could make your life easier. While they are nice to have, you should be perfectly happy even if you don’t get them.
Basically, you should want only what you can realistically get. For the Stoics, the only thing you have control over is your mind, and so for them the goal of life should be to live a life of virtue. You cannot control the acts of others, but you can control what you yourself do.
The discipline of desire (will) is strongly linked to self-control and to the virtues of courage and temperance. Only through self-control can you affect your will and limit it to desire things that you can realistically get, instead of wanting things that you have no control over.
Mastering your desire is the key to the other two disciplines: action and assent. By knowing what is in your control, you can better guide your actions and your thoughts (assent). The biggest benefit of practicing Stoicism is that you will become more resilient and develop a strong mindset.
The discipline of action is about how you behave in the world and about taking action. There will be many tests to your character, but you need to stay on course.
The Stoics believed that the most important part of taking action is not the result, but the journey. You cannot control the result, but what you can control is how you prepare for it.
This is linked to having a strong character and being driven by virtue. Marcus Aurelius often stated that humans are social animals and that they live in a community composed of many individuals. Your actions need to have a moral purpose and benefit this community.
The discipline of assent (perception) is about your mind and how it judges things. The problem is that it often gives the wrong impression of events, which can then weigh heavily on your moods and actions.
It is usually not the events themselves that make you sad, but how you interpret them. Therefore you need to think carefully when judging things.
Don’t fall for cognitive biases or false impressions. Always use your reason. For the Stoics, being one with Reason was the most important part of being a sage.
One practical thing that you should start doing right away is to keep a journal and a commonplace.
A journal is a notebook used to share reflections on your own actions. Marcus Aurelius used it as a way to remind himself of how he should behave and to impart Stoic lessons on himself. By writing them down, these lessons stuck better in his head.
A commonplace is a notebook used for gathering different pieces of knowledge. Whatever catches your fancy, whether something you come across or read, or maybe something you think up, should be written down in this notebook.
These commonplace notebooks were often used by the Ancients as a way to remember some important and interesting pieces of information. One of the most famous ones is “Attic Nights” which was written by Aulus Gellius, when he was living in Athens.
Keeping these two notebooks and writing in them periodically can be the starting point for changing up your life. These are very powerful tools, which can help you to implement meaningful changes, as well as a way to remind yourself of the important lessons and pieces of knowledge that you discover.
However, what else can you do in order to put all this into practice in your own life? We will cover that in the next post. Stay tuned.
All the articles in this mini-series:
The Discipline of Desire
The Discipline of Action
The Discipline of Assent
A Day in the Life of Someone Implementing the System
The important lesson from all of this is to remember that sometimes the world can be random. You do not control what happens in the world around you, but you can control how you react and how you respond to these events. Keep in mind what is up to you and what isn’t. By doing this, you can focus your energies on the important things and not bother with the rest.
Lessons and quotes from the “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius:
Marcus Aurelius: How to gather the strength to survive in adversity.