What is Avid Weekly Ideas?
Each week I publish an idea or two either from a book I am currently reading or from my backlog of book notes. 📚
Of course, this isn’t intended to replace book notes or reading the book itself. Instead the aim is to extract a key idea or two from a book that struck me as insightful and share-worthy. Then I package it into a bite-sized digestible chunk. I hope these little nuggets of insight will spark some inspiration or ideas in your own mind. 💡
7 Lessons from a Roman Emperor
Marcus Aurelius was the Roman emperor from AD 161 to 180 and a famous Stoic philosopher. He was the last of the rulers known as the Five Good Emperors (a term coined some 13 centuries later by Niccolò Machiavelli), and the last emperor of the Pax Romana, an age of relative peace and stability for the Roman Empire.
Fun fact: Marcus Aurelius is the emperor in the Hollywood blockbuster Gladiator (now available in 4K on Prime Video) played by Richard Harris.
Meditations was originally written by Marcus without any intention of publication. It contains his struggles to understand himself and make sense of the world.
Another fun fact: Marcus Aurelius was the only Roman emperor who was also a philosopher (not surprisingly since I figure that presumably Roman emperors were a busy bunch). 😄
Last thing before we start. Don’t you find it amazing, the power of the written word? How remarkable that almost two thousand years later we can read the work of someone who has been dead for many centuries. The words he left behind effectively represent a snapshot of his mind and thoughts at the time! 🤯
Anyway let’s dive in. Here are 7 lessons from Meditations that I felt were worth sharing. I am sure there are many more than 7 but I will leave that for a follow-up post another day.
Lesson #1 – On serious concentration when working
Concentrate every minute like a Roman—like a man—on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can—if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable. You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life? If you can manage this, that’s all even the gods can ask of you.
These days the modern term for this is “flow” or “flow state.”
Lesson #2 – On having underlying principles for all your actions
No random actions, none not based on underlying principles.
Others have called this, “having a method to your madness” (Shakespeare in Hamlet) or only doing things with “rhyme or reason” (popularized by Shakespeare in The Comedy of Errors).
More recently, Ray Dalio has written an entire book on this topic, called not surprisingly, Principles.
Lesson #3 – On helping others and expecting nothing in return
Some people, when they do someone a favor, are always looking for a chance to call it in. And some aren’t, but they’re still aware of it—still regard it as a debt. But others don’t even do that. They’re like a vine that produces grapes without looking for anything in return.
A horse at the end of the race . . . A dog when the hunt is over . . . A bee with its honey stored . . . And a human being after helping others.
They don’t make a fuss about it. They just go on to something else, as the vine looks forward to bearing fruit again in season. We should be like that. Acting almost unconsciously.
This echoes Luke 6:34.
And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.
As well as Luke 14:12.
When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.
Lesson #4 – On the futility of fearing change
Frightened of change? But what can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you take a hot bath and leave the firewood as it was? Eat food without transforming it? Can any vital process take place without something being changed?
Can’t you see? It’s just the same with you—and just as vital to nature.
I really liked this one and never really thought of it precisely in this way before. But upon reflection this is so true. Time itself is constantly moving forward and thus changing. If time didn’t move forward, the world would pause to a standstill.
There would be no music (changing pitch over time).
There would be no acceleration (changing velocity over time).
There would be no movies or video (changing frames over time).
And most importantly there would be no life or movement (changing state and position over time).
Lesson #5 – On being grateful with what you have
Treat what you don’t have as nonexistent. Look at what you have, the things you value most, and think of how much you’d crave them if you didn’t have them. But be careful. Don’t feel such satisfaction that you start to overvalue them—that it would upset you to lose them.
Just like many things in life, people tend to not appreciate things they already have and overvalue things they don’t yet have.
The solution proposed by Aurelius is to simply imagine if you didn’t have something you already have. That way you might start to appreciate what you have a lot more.
Which ties in perfectly to the next lesson on the power of the mind.
Lesson #6 – On the power of the mind
People try to get away from it all—to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like. By going within.
Nowhere you can go is more peaceful—more free of interruptions—than your own soul. Especially if you have other things to rely on. An instant’s recollection and there it is: complete tranquility. And by tranquility I mean a kind of harmony.
So keep getting away from it all—like that. Renew yourself. But keep it brief and basic. A quick visit should be enough to ward off all and send you back ready to face what awaits you.
Here Aurelius reiterates what many philosophers before and after him have realized, that a great deal (though certainly not all) of human suffering exists purely in one’s mind.
And you have the ability to choose.
Lesson #7 – The importance of being genuine and not “phony”
The despicable phoniness of people who say, “Listen, I’m going to level with you here.” What does that mean? It shouldn’t even need to be said. It should be obvious—written in block letters on your forehead. It should be audible in your voice, visible in your eyes, like a lover who looks into your face and takes in the whole story at a glance. A straightforward, honest person should be like someone who stinks: when you’re in the same room with him, you know it. But false straightforwardness is like a knife in the back.
False friendship is the worst. Avoid it at all costs. If you’re honest and straightforward and mean well, it should show in your eyes. It should be unmistakable.
Bonus lesson – Always keep in mind the mortality of human life
So many who were remembered already forgotten, and those who remembered them long gone.
There is no point being too arrogant or conceited in life. Remember time is the great equalizer. From dust we came to dust we return.
On that note I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes on time by J.R.R. Tolkien.
This thing all things devours, Birds, beasts, trees, and flowers. Gnaws iron bites steel, Grinds hard stones to meal, Slays king, ruins town, And beats high mountain down.
TL;DR of key ideas
- Concentrate every minute when working with precise and genuine seriousness.
- No random actions, none not based on underlying principles.
- When helping others, expect nothing in return.
- Do not fear change as it is futile. All progress in humanity is based on change.
- Always be grateful with what you have.
- Your mind is a powerful object that can determine how you feel based on how you use it.
- Always be genuine and avoid “phoniness.”
- Always keep in mind the mortality of human life.
If you liked this week’s ideas, please consider reading the entire book to get the full context, meaning and nuance. As always, happy reading! 📚
Thanks for reading. If you enjoy these weekly bite-sized chunks of ideas from books and would like to support them, there are a couple of ways you could do that.
- The easiest way is to share these posts with anyone whom you think would find them useful towards developing a reading habit. So feel free to pass these on to your friends of family. ✉
- If you have the means you could subscribe to my paid Substack publication. It would go a long way towards helping me devote more time towards my pursuit of lifelong learning and enable me to create more content. 📚
Either way, I really appreciate the time you spent reading this article. 🙏
Let’s stay in touch. You can find me on: