Marcus Aurelius on Retreating Into One’s Self

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

The Stoics believed that a man’s philosophy is revealed not in what he says but how he lives.

A constant theme in the works of Stoicism is the need to be impervious to circumstance, allowing nothing to rob you of your equanimity. In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius reminds himself repeatedly that a sound philosophy is the safe-haven from worldly influence.

“Withdraw into yourself.”

Whether in an ongoing battle against Germanic tribes or simply being consumed by office politics, the ability to center one’s self, grounded in the tenets of a philosophy based off reason, gives one the space to deal with life’s difficulties in the most productive way. When we can distant ourselves from the task at hand, the space between the observed and the observer becomes a natural buffer zone in which we intelligibly address the problem at hand using logic, free of the overpowering tendency of our emotions to run rampant.

“Men seek retreats for themselves – in the country, by the sea, in the hills – and you yourself are particularly prone to this yearning. But all this is quite unphilosophic, when it is open to you, at any time you want, to retreat into yourself. No retreat offers someone more quiet and relaxation than that into his own mind…”

When this becomes the focus of our personal study, we create a home within ourselves, and the stresses of the world become manageable.

When I was away this summer on a 3-month solo road trip, I lived by Joseph Campbell’s words, “The demon you can swallow gives you its power.” I made a pact with myself that I would view every obstacle as an opportunity to grow, the more difficult a situation was the greater its potential to serve me. This simple phrase became a pillar of my philosophy, and though it was a simple mantra consisting of 9 words, it brought me much strength in times of need.

To retreat into one’s self we must have an open communication with ourselves. We see that our stresses are more a result of our thoughts about events rather than the events themselves.

Ultimately, events have no meaning other than that which we ascribe to them. In tempering our emotional response to stimuli, in turning inward for our own salvation, we are no longer at the mercy of circumstance. We shape our world through our view of it.

“That is why a mind free from passions is a fortress: people have no stronger place of retreat, and someone taking refuge here is then impregnable. Anyone who has not seen this is short of wisdom: anyone who has seen it and does not take refuge is short of fortune.”

We demonstrate our knowledge in what we say, but our wisdom comes forth in the way we live.

Next time you are cut off in traffic, seduced into an argument, or in a group conversation discussing the trivial, know that you are not confined to circumstance. At any moment we have the power to retreat into ourselves, creating a home where there was once confusion.

When we develop this ability, there is no demon we cannot swallow and no power we cannot ascertain.

If you want to read Chris’s latest book on personal development, check it out here.

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