Marcus Aurelius — 10 Rules For Life

Fearlessness and Freedom from Irrational Desire

Will Russell
Sep 23 · 4 min read

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius address a Self that has retreated from public view. They are a dialogue of the soul as it speaks to itself, stressing an indifference to what other humans value most — family, wealth, reputation, power and even health. For the devotee, they promise achievement of fearlessness and freedom from irrational desire.

The philosophy associated with Marcus Aurelius is known as Stoicism. Diskin Clay, in his introduction to the Penguin Classics 2006 edition of Meditations, describes the Stoic thus,

The word Stoic has two meanings: it describes both a member of the school of philosophy Zeno founded in the Painted Stoa at the approach to the ancient Agora of Athens and a person who represses his emotions and desires, is indifferent to pleasure or pain, and is enduring.

You can study Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations forever and benefit by such an endeavor. Here are ten rules for life that serve as a succinct and beneficial introduction to his teaching.

One — Take A View From Above

You should view yourself occasionally as if you are looking at yourself in the third person. Imagine a camera that is looking at you and then you slowly zoom out and up. So, if you are in a situation where you are feeling uncomfortable or anxious, you zoom out to look at the room and the people in it, then the building, then the street, then the town, then the county, then the province, then the country and so on. Whilst you are doing this, picture all the other buildings and all the rooms that they contain and all the people inside of them. This will have the effect of putting your problems in perspective, that other people are having problems and yours are not all consuming,

Two — Plan for complete failure

Yes, this appears contrary to the usual focus on the power of positive thinking and the law of attraction. The Stoics believed in negative visualisation — that you should think about the worst thing that could happen and do so in some detail. So, for example, if you are making a public speech, you should visualize the crowd standing up and booing you before all walking out. This is not going to happen, but if you dwell on it and visualize it, then if some other things do go wrong, it will not concern you as much.

Three — Stare at Death

Spend a month dwelling on death and indeed the worst and most painful death imaginable. If you realize you only have a certain number of days — the average person lives 25,500 days — you will live them better. Also, by ruminating on the terror of death, you lessen the fear of it, as paradoxical as that first appears.

Four — Do Only What is Essential

If you think life is short, it is not, for the Stoic, seventy summers is more than enough. But, you must learn to focus, to cut out what is important, if you concentrate on only the essential, you will have plenty of time to achieve the essential.

Five — All Things Must Pass

When things are going wrong for us, we tend to allow negativity to consume us. Learn to accept that all emotions, both negative and positive are transient and impermanent.

Six — Live like a Minimalist

Sadhu ascetics in India give all their possessions away, Kondo teaches us to declutter. Learn that the things that you buy will not bring you happiness. It will not bring you long term fulfillment. The more stuff you have, the more stressed you are. The things you own, actually own you.

Seven — Live In The Present Moment.

You did not worry about being around in 1841, why worry if you are not around in 2041? Do not dwell on the past nor be concerned with the future. Do not replay your mistakes over and over, learn to walk out of that movie. You cannot change the past but you can change your perception of it. Meditation is the best method for this.

Eight — Contemplate the Sage

Choose a person who you wholly respect. Or outline what traits you ideal character would have. When you encounter a situation that arises emotions in you, try to take a few seconds to consider how your ideal character would react and then strive to do the same.

Nine — Habits are necessary

The Stoics would write down their maxims, such as ‘The best revenge is not to be like your enemy’ or ‘I have no cause to hurt myself. I have never consciously hurt anyone else.’ And repeat them everyday, over and over, until they acted them out subconsciously

Ten — Review The Day

Before you sleep, take time to review your day, think about what you did well and what you can improve upon. Then, the next day try to act out what you thought about. Small improvements compounded each day achieve monumental results.

There are twelve Books of the Meditations containing 488 ‘chapters’, varying in length from three words to three pages. There is much to be gleaned studying them. But as a start, work each day on implementing these ten rules and you will benefit.

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Will Russell

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