When I was seventeen I read John Steinbeck
’s East of Eden
, in which a wise Chinese servant seeks advice from Marcus Aurelius
’ classic Meditations
. Despite his lonely life, the servant is happy. I wondered how Aurelius brought this character such content, but I was skeptical that an ancient text could actually impact a modern man
. After reading Steinbeck’s novel, I decided to browse the Meditations
to see what practical advice the two thousand year-old collection of notes had to offer, but I doubted that I could relate to it.
As I drove to Borders, speeding, careless motorists irritated me. The cacophonous commercials on the radio angered me. At the time any trifle could throw me into an ornery, unfulfilled, and restless mood. I was searching for a new philosophy, a different way to explain a world I perceived as brutal and incomprehensible. Expecting to find answers in a modern work, however, I planned on purchasing a Hemingway novel.
Entering the monstrous vault of literature, pop culture, and coffee, I scuttled to the back corner to pick up The Sun Also Rises. After dodging the mobs surrounding the bestsellers, I found myself before the monolithic Classics shelf, still suspecting I would be uninterested in Meditations due to Aurelius’ antiquity. Looking for Meditations, I became more doubtful when I saw several classics I had read and deemed dull and of little value to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. All that I saw as I looked at the hardcover translations were either works I didn’t enjoy or works that intimidated me because of their inaccessibility to all but a few elite scholars. Opening Meditations, I was immediately struck by its brevity. Opening up to a page at random, I read, “Ignoring what goes on in other people’s souls—no one ever came to grief that way” (2.8). I was impressed by its apparent simplicity and amazed by the usefulness of its advice. Trusting that this work could relieve me of my discontent, I purchased it. Oblivious to the rude drivers and bad music, I rushed home to dive into Meditations.
I expected to devour its contents within days, but I soon realized that this was a work that demanded thought after each sentence, introspection after each idea. Sitting outdoors on picturesque summer days, I would open up to a page and contemplate the meaning of a paragraph for hours. After a few weeks, I had finished the book and reread it. The writing spoke to me, answered my questions, and relieved me of my doubts and fears. Before reading the work, I worried about other people, but when I read Aurelius’ advice that “it’s all in how I perceive it. I’m in control,” (12.22) I freed myself from the pain that others inflict on me. I used to be concerned about death, but Meditations 8.20 posed the question, “what does the bubble gain from its existence? Or lose by its bursting?”
The Meditations became a guidebook for my daily life. When a tough situation arose demanding of me strength, I turned to the instructions of Marcus Aurelius. When a sudden interruption occurred in my routine, I reminded myself, “There is nothing bad in undergoing change—or good in emerging from it” (4.42). When I felt like sleeping instead of studying, I recalled his idea that the body should not rule the mind. After a month of daily consulting, I no longer needed the book, for I had assimilated its philosophy. Obstacles emerged, and I jumped over them. Uncertainty struck me, and I fought back with logic. Anxiety crept upon me, and I kept my composure.
Not only has Meditations changed the way I think and act, but it also has opened my mind. I used to be selective regarding the authors I read, the music I listened to, and the people with whom I associated. I am less judgmental with regard to appearance and try to ignore preconceptions. My discovery of Marcus Aurelius enormously changed my character. To me, the finding of the ancient philosopher-king is tantamount to the discovery of a new species. It is a breakthrough. After Meditations provided me with a breath of much-needed freshness, I never again denied a book a place on my shelf due to its old age.