Marcus Aurelius: Reading as a Pillar of Stoicism

In the maze of life, where every twist and turn challenges our sense of direction and purpose, few guides have illuminated our path as the ancient Stoics. Their wisdom, practical and timeless, provides the compass for many in navigating life’s turbulent seas.

Marcus Aurelius, a name that resonates with wisdom and virtue, stood as a testament to Stoic philosophy. Emperor of Rome, leader of legions, and a man of unparalleled power, yet he was also a student, constantly seeking knowledge through reading. But why was reading so central to Marcus and his Stoic peers?

In Stoicism, the concept of virtue—that highest good—is closely connected with knowledge and wisdom. The Stoics believed that by better understanding the world and our place in it, we can lead more virtuous lives. Reading, then, becomes not just an exercise for the mind but a journey of the soul.

Marcus Aurelius’s own work, “Meditations”, is a collection of his personal notes and reflections. It provides a window into his mind, and through it, we glimpse the books, philosophies, and thinkers that shaped him. He wasn’t merely a passive consumer of words; he actively engaged with texts, contemplated them, and then applied their wisdom to his own life and reign.

Reading, for Marcus and the Stoics, was not for escape or mere entertainment. It was a deliberate act of self-improvement, a way to hone the mind, much like a blade is sharpened against a stone. Through reading, we not only gain knowledge but also develop our capacity for critical thinking and judgment. We learn to differentiate the essential from the trivial, the eternal from the ephemeral.

Consider this: in the vast expanse of time, why do some texts remain while others fade? It is because these enduring works touch upon universal truths, and by engaging with them, we align ourselves with these truths. Marcus Aurelius read to connect with the wisdom of the ages, to become part of a continuum of thinkers stretching back to antiquity and extending into the future.

Yet, it is essential to approach reading with intent. In our modern world, distractions abound, and information is plentiful. But as the Stoics would remind us, it’s not about how much we read, but how deeply we engage. Selective and thoughtful reading, the kind Marcus Aurelius practiced, carves a path to wisdom. Each book becomes a conversation, a chance to reflect, question, and grow.

As we close this contemplation on reading’s place in Stoicism, let’s remember that the practice is more than a mere pastime. In the Stoic tradition, it’s a ritual, an exercise in molding our character and refining our spirit. In the words of another great Stoic, Seneca: “We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application… and learn them so well that words become works.”

And if you’re now inspired to dive deeper into the world of Stoicism and its reverence for reading, I recommend starting with “The Daily Stoic” by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman. It’s a curated collection of Stoic wisdom, distilled for everyday application, and offers a gateway to a philosophy that has withstood the test of time.

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