Each month, American Express Essentials highlights one definitive literary work, old or new, and across any and all genres. The only determinant is quality: a book that makes life more vivid, more inspiring – a gifted piece of work you want to share. An absolute must-read. 

Up this month is a book revered by many, although perhaps truly grasped by only a few; a book of philosophical teachings adopted by some of the world’s most prolific leaders: Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

In the hallowed halls of ancient philosophy (yes this is an Odyssey pun), Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations stands tall as a testament to the boundless power of introspection and intellectual exploration. As a series of personal writings penned by the Roman emperor himself during his reign from 161 to 180 CE, this magnum opus unveils the insights and philosophical musings of a brilliant Stoic mind. It was, however, originally intended as a source of guidance for Aurelius – and himself only.

A work that was never meant to see the light of day – the original title, Ta eis heauton, roughly translates as “To Himself” – Meditations emerges as a remarkable testament to the depths of the human spirit. Originally, these reflections were never intended for public admiration, but instead constituted a deeply personal endeavour of self-improvement. Against all odds, however, the sole manuscript containing Aurelius’s spiritual jottings was preserved, only to be discovered centuries later; it was in the hands of the brilliant translator Méric Casaubon in the 17th century that this collection was bestowed with the title Meditations and propelled into the realm of literary and cultural immortality. 

Yet it is perhaps because of this lack of awareness of his would-be public that Aurelius’ writings are still so enthralling. In fact, maybe the allure of Meditations lies in the realisation that his writings were never intended for our eyes. While much of our literary canon can, at times, seem like a grand performance meticulously crafted to captivate an audience, this work dances to a different tune. Aurelius’ words, unburdened by the desire to please, entertain or impress, are raw, unpretentiously honest. There is no showmanship here. There are no screams or acts, only whispers and musings:

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognised that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine.”

It feels crucial to mention that these observations are imbued with a pervasive sense of wistfulness, or even melancholy. Marcus Aurelius’ writing resonates with a profoundly moving undertone – that of someone who, despite standing at the pinnacle of power and authority, was often lonesome. Someone who finds solace in the echoes of his own inner dialogue, and who, lacking confidants, needs to lay down the burden of his thoughts.

Evidently, the Roman emperor harboured no aspirations of admiration or praise for his reflections, composing them solely as a source of solace during his darkest hours – of which he had more than his fair share, regardless of his extremely privileged position in the world. In the words of Roman historian Cassius Dio, Aurelius “did not meet with the good fortune that he deserved, for he was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign.” Penned between 170 and 180 A.D., against the tumultuous backdrop of “warfare and a journey far from home”, these meditations serve as a beacon of resilience and fortitude from a man who struggled to understand himself and make sense of the world around him. Contrary to what modern, market-minded bookstore placement may suggest, this is more than your average self-help book. 

The writings, divided into twelve short “chapters”, take the form of quotations varying in length from one sentence to long paragraphs – arguably one of the main reasons why this book is beloved by what seems to be everyone who has ever read a book. This is easily one of the philosophy genre’s most accessible tomes. 

Precisely because they were never meant to be published, however, the quotations often lack structure and can be repetitive, almost as if Aurelius was speaking (or writing) to himself. Which, of course, he was. Readers looking for the familiar structure of a traditional novel will likely be tempted to abandon ship. Though thought-provoking, the ideas and observations in Meditations are not presented cohesively, nor chronologically or thematically; instead, they show up here and there, once and then again, and again, and again… 

Despite any apparent flaws, Meditations has found a comfortable spot in the home of many an avid reader – including Bill Clinton, who allegedly makes sure to reread it at least once a year. The book’s exploration of universal themes, such as the nature of existence and the pursuit of virtue, has the potential to resonate with readers of all ages, from the young seeking guidance to the wise contemplating life’s mysteries. Moreover, the emphasis on self-reflection and inner discipline transcends societal roles, offering valuable lessons applicable to people from all walks of life, regardless of occupation or social status. The book’s timeless wisdom remains relevant in any era, offering up stimulating explorations of ethics, time, mortality, stoicism, rationality and pain, among many more themes.

Though initially intended to offer solace and motivation for one lonely leader, in creating this reflective work, Aurelius inadvertently penned one of the most influential philosophical compositions of all time. Revered by statesmen, intellectuals and readers of all types over the ages, this timeless collection of teachings stands as a testament to the quintessence of Stoicism, while providing a tangible means of practising the tenets of this enduring philosophy – perhaps in perpetuity.

Further Reading

As with any classic work, finding the right translation can be critical to a reader’s enjoyment, so try to get your hands on Martin Hammond’s modern translation of Meditations (Penguin) or Meditations: With Selected Correspondence (Oxford World’s Classics) by Robin Hard. If you’d like to delve further into stoicism, turn to the wisdom of Epictetus; The Discourses and A Manual for Living are good starting points. For busier or more practical readers, The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living by Ryan Holiday makes for a bedside table book you can revisit again and again.

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