The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius: The last work manual you’ll ever need.

It is to my regret, as a student of classics, that I have taken so long to read the meditations of the Roman Emperor and philosopher, Marcus Aurelius. Partly because they are a rather well-known and interesting piece of classical literature that I somehow managed miss while at university, but mainly because I would have found them useful insights as I started to navigate my way through the modern day world of work.

Written in Greek, rather than Latin, and addressed to himself, the Meditations are Aurelius’ private journal intended solely for his own guidance and self-improvement as he applied his philosophy of Stoicism as, to use his words, “a male, mature in years, a statesman, a Roman, a ruler.”  They must have done him some good, as historian Cassius Dio recorded that “he was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign” but that “amid unusual and extraordinary difficulties he both survived himself and preserved the empire.”

How did he do it? Well, it might just have something to do with his considered philosophy, as expressed in his Meditations. It is not a structured work. It was not intended for publication. Rather, it reads as a succession of reflections, thoughts and aphorisms that record something of the Emperor’s way of thinking and his approach to his responsibilities. It is the kind of thing one can pick up, leaf through and find an interesting thought to chew on, and having done so I would contend that there is plenty there that bears application to the pressures of a modern-day work life  – the multiple pitfalls of working with colleagues,  and finding focus, and keeping motivated – to name but a few.

Meditations on Working with Colleagues.     

Which of us has not felt a certain grim foreboding when heading to work to deal once again with certain colleagues and co-workers? Aurelius certainly did.

Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, unsocial…

He had an answer for this.

“The nature of the offender is akin to my own, not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind … I cannot be harmed by any of them as none will infect me with their wrong.  We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like upper teeth. To work in opposition to one another is against nature, and anger or rejection is opposition. II.1

Surely this is a point worth remembering when a meeting at work hasn’t gone your way, or when, try as you might, a colleague is not playing ball with your deadlines. You are much like these troublesome individuals. Rather than get angry, make sure that you are not the obstacle to effective collaboration.     

Meditations on Finding Focus

The Emperor, it would appear, was much given to that most egregious of life’s sins, procrastination  

“Remember how long you have been putting this off, how many times you have been given a period of grace by the gods and not used it. … There is a limit circumscribed to your time. If you do not use it, it will be gone, and you will be gone, and the opportunity will not return.” II.4

Oh, how I can relate. I am an epic procrastinator (how appropriate that this sin has a Latin name). Aurelius’ remedy? Old-fashioned discipline and focus!

“Every hour of the day give vigorous attention, as a Roman and as a Man, to the performance of the task in hand, with precise analysis, with unaffected dignity, with human sympathy. … Perform each action as if it were the last of your life, freed, that is, from all lack of aim, from all passion led deviation from the ordinance of reason, from dissatisfaction with what fate has dealt you.”   II.5

How many times I could have done with that lesson on a slow office afternoon, spent putting off my work because I was bored and irritated that such a task was in my in-tray. He later says:

Soon you will have forgotten all things. Soon all things will have forgotten you. VII.21

How true. What more reason could you need to focus on the work of the moment, for it is no sooner done than forgotten and consigned to history. 

Meditations on Motivation.

Book V opens with counsel for a struggle that will be familiar to many:

“At break of day, when you are reluctant to get up, have this thought ready to mind. ‘I am getting up for a man’s work.’ Do I still then resent it then, I am going out to do what I was born for?… Or was I created to wrap myself in blankets and keep warm?”

If you are tempted to answer ‘yes’ then read on…

“Were you born for pleasure – all for feeling not for action? … Can you not see plants, birds, ants, spiders, bees all doing their own work, each helping in their own way to order the world? And then you do not want to do the work of the human being …? ‘But one needs rest too.’ One does indeed, but nature set limits to this too, just as to eating and drinking, and yet you go beyond these limits, beyond what you need. Not in your actions though. Here you stay below your capability.”  V.1

His point is that work, in its broadest sense, is an essential part of human nature, just as much as eating, drinking and resting. To shun it, is to shun your raison d’etre, and is, in its extremes an act of self-loathing. It’s an old idea, but one to ponder come the Sunday evening blues.

Summer is coming to an end. September beckons and it’ll soon be time get back into the old work-life routines. A shock to the system for sure, but one could do worse, along the way, than to meditate on the Meditations.


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