From the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, 6:11–12
“When circumstances force you to some sort of distress, quickly return to yourself. Do not stay out of rhythm for longer than you must: you will master the harmony the more by constantly going back to it.
“… So return to philosophy again and again, and take your comfort in her: she will make the other life seem bearable to you, and you bearable in it.”
When I was introduced to philosophy, especially the classics and most especially the Stoics, it was frequently (if not primarily) framed as consolation and guide.
This passage is a perfect example: this morning got started on the wrong foot, so the question instantly became how long I’d stay out of rhythm. I flipped the Meditations open at random and found this at the beginning of Book 6. And not only did it provide an inspiration for today’s writing, but it also offered consolation and guidance as to what to do with the rest of the day.
Stoicism, that most caricatured guide to life, was historically the no-nonsense philosophy of rulers and powerful people in private business. Even today, you don’t have to scratch the surface of Silicon Valley and self-improvement podcasts very deeply to find its influence; just reading these lines again this morning, I was instantly reminded of something Tony Robbins said on the Tim Ferriss Show about deciding that he wasn’t going to let anything interrupt his “beautiful state” for more than a minute. When something went wrong, he’d give himself exactly 60 seconds to get angry and give vent, and then he’d put the past behind him and move on.
If that sounds either harsh or unrealistic, here’s another way of thinking about it: philosophy can provide what Seth Godin frequently calls “guardrails” around how to live. Once you’ve decided that the Meditations are the standard, even a quick dip back into the text can re-establish a broken rhythm and rescue the rest of the day.
It’s too hard to start ab initio every time something goes wrong. Things go wrong too often, and it takes too long to get back in tune by guesswork alone. The Meditations provide a consistent wavelength in life, which provides both warning when I’m out of tune and consolation by making it possible to return again and again to the wavelength that feels right.