One of my favorite openings to a book is the first chapter of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. It reads like the acknowledgements section that we usually see at the end of a book, except it’s more than that. In the introductory pages, Aurelius recognizes everyone that has had a positive impact on his life while describing the particular lessons he learned from them.
What we know about Meditations is that more than a memoir it is a personal journal that came to light years after the author’s death. To me, the fact that Aurelius was writing to himself highlights the significance of the people he was writing about. This detail lets us see that one of the greatest figures in human history is the sum of the people who surrounded him.
“I am indebted to my grandfather Verus for his good disposition and sweet temper.”
“From my father’s reputation and my memory of him, I learned modesty and manliness.”
“From my mother I learned to fear God and to be generous…”
“From Diognetus I learned to shun trivialities…”
“Apollonius taught me to take matters into my own hand…”
And so it goes.
There’s a lesson in Aurelius’ gratitude. It’s about learning from others and modeling their best characteristics. Sure we may not be as privileged as he. We don’t have personal tutors and philosophers hanging about, but we live in an era where, information-wise, we’re more privileged than a Roman emperor. At any moment we can find dozens of books on how to start a business, overcome anxiety and depression, get through relationship problems, fix our finances, and many more topics. Anything we want to do has already been done. More importantly, it’s been done well.
Learning from those that came before us is the best way to fast-track the journey we’re on. Reading their stories lets us know that our struggles are not unique. We begin to see that maybe we’re not as alone as we feel. Someone has been through our situation before and someone has made it to the other side. Time and again. There’s hope in that.
Make no mistake though, we will make our own mistakes. The point is to lessen their severity and move through them rather quickly. We want to avoid common pitfalls. What we don’t want to do is set unreasonable expectations about the complexity of our journey—expectations that may disillusion us along the way. Because after all, as Marcus Aurelius said, “The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing.”
If you’re interested in reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, my favorite translation can be found at the affiliate link below:
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