Marcus Aurelius on Self-Mastery

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

If I were stuck on a desert island and had to choose only a few books to help shape my personal philosophy, Meditations would be at the top of that list.

The timeless wisdom of Marcus Aurelius reminds us that all is temporary; our bodies, riches, and worldly prestige will soon be dust. He continually stresses that a sound philosophy is what allows one to practice virtue while removing vice.

“Your mind will take on the character of your most frequent thoughts: souls are dyed by thoughts.”

We become what we think about. We must do due diligence to ensure our thoughts are noble and serving our highest aim. We would do well to nurture the thoughts of selfless devotion to our fellow man, not for the reception we receive, but because we know this to be the proper action toward others.

Civic duty aside, Marcus warns against the craving for things which do not serve us:

“Never regard as a benefit to yourself anything which will force you at some point to break your faith, to leave integrity behind, to hate, suspect, or curse another, to dissemble, to covet anything needing the secrecy of walls and drapes.”

We find that all our actions are sprouted in the seed of thought. This is the foundation upon which our lives are built and should be the starting point for our own development. If we want to change our outer world, we must change our inner dialog. Simple adjustments in wording can completely alter the way in which we interact with the world.

“One man prays: “how can I sleep with that woman”. Your prayer is: “how can I lose the desire to sleep with her?” Another prays: “ how can I be rid of that man?” You pray: “ How can I stop wanting to be rid of him?” Another: “How can I save my little child?” you: “How can I learn not to fear his loss?” and so on. Give all your prayers this turn, and observe what happens.”

When we direct our thoughts in this manner, we find that all activities become vehicles for our development. We practice our philosophy not with our thoughts but by our actions. We interact with countless people throughout the day with whom we can practice kindness, often a smile or wave will suffice. Every time we sit down to a meal we have the opportunity to practice mindfulness, temperance, and gratitude. Every time we exercise we practice our resilience in face of physical adversity.

“How clearly it strikes you that there is no other walk of life so conducive to the exercise of philosophy as this in which you now find yourself!”

Our thoughts shape our actions while our actions shape the world. We must stand guard at the gates of our minds, allowing nothing to enter which does not serve us. When we do this, we give ourselves the opportunity to live in a perpetual state of growth, always using the task at hand to become better versions of ourselves.

In our fourth and final post, we will see that such cultivation of our minds is made possible by learning to accept the things over which we have no control.

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

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