Meditations is a work by Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD. It is a collection of letters written by Aurelius in his common place book, a journal where he wrote his important thoughts and reflections so that he could return to them and always be cognizant of the lessons life had provided him.
Aurelius’ Meditations begins with the emperor reflecting on his childhood, his family, and his upbringing. He lists lessons that he learned from those around him during his development, and what those lessons meant to him at the time he was writing. As I return to Aurelius’ thoughts, I am struck by how well his work parallels ideas from Fred Kiel’s book Return on Character. I recently wrote about a study that Kiel completed as part of the research for his business book written over 1,800 years after Aurelius’ meditations, and I am struck by the overlap of the ideas. Kiel argues that our most successful and responsible business leaders, those who provide the greatest value for those in their lives and the companies they run, are those who have a whole and complete understanding of themselves and the experiences that shaped their lives. He argues that to be a truly moral and responsible individual you must be able to reflect on the influences that shaped your life, and understand how those influences shaped who you are today. By understanding and having a complete life story you can better connect with people and be better prepared to lead through having a greater understanding of humanity and your place within society.
What Kiel wrote in his book in 2015, Aurelius clearly understood in the 2nd second century. He explains how he developed the thoughts and ideas that shaped him, and he explains exactly where his character traits and habits come from.
The Emperor begins Meditations by writing, “From my grandfather Verus [I learned] good morals and the government of my temper” and he continues, “From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.” Aurelius extends beyond family to show what lessons he learned from people in the society in which he lived, “From my governor…I learned endurance of labor, and to want little, and to work with my own hands…” “From Rusticus I received the impression that my character required improvement and discipline … nor to showing myself off as a man who practices much discipline, or does benevolent acts in order to make a display.”
The quotes above are key tenants of stoicism, and they struck me as very powerful when I first read Meditations. Aurelius explains what forces in his life shaped his thoughts and beliefs, and he continues throughout his work to show how this backing helped him approach the world in a constructive and positive manner as he governed not only the Roman Empire, but his own mind and actions. Incorporating the ideas outlined above in his quotes can be very powerful in the way we approach others and apply ourselves toward the efforts and goals that we all have. Remembering that character requires discipline and continual improvement helps us stay humbled in our relationships to others, especially if we can practice such discipline without making a great show or display of it. When we can focus on these key concepts and understand what molded us into the complete individuals that we are today, we will be better prepared to react to a changing world, and we will better understand our role and place within our society.