According to the philosopher Blaise Pascal, at the root of most human activity is a desire to escape boredom and self-awareness. We go to elaborate measures, he said, to avoid even a few minutes of quiet. It was true even of the people you think had all the reasons to be happy and content.
“A king is surrounded by people,” Pascal wrote, “whose only thought is to divert him and stop him thinking about himself, because, king though he is, he becomes unhappy as soon as he thinks about himself.”
It’s an observation that puts Marcus Aurelius in an even more impressive light. Think about it: Marcus Aurelius was surrounded by servants and sycophants, people who wanted favors and people who feared him. He had unlimited wealth but endless responsibility. And what did he do with this? Did he throw himself endlessly into the diversion and distraction these blessings and curses offered?
No. Instead, he made sure to carve out time to sit quietly by himself with his journals. He probed his own mind on a regular basis. He thought of himself—not egotistically—but with an eye towards noticing his own failings. He questioned himself. He questioned the world around him. He refused to be distracted. He refused to give into temptation.
People in his own time probably thought he was a bit dour. They wondered why he did not enjoy all the trappings of wealth and power like his predecessors. What they missed, what’s so easy to miss today in our own blessed lives, is that the true path to happiness is not through externals. It’s found within. It’s found in the stillness. In the quiet. With yourself.