Meditations is the personal diary/journal of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who is one of the Five Good Emperors of Rome. Written over the course of numerous years by Aurelius (he reigned as emperor from 161-180 CE), Meditations served as a way for Aurelius to improve himself as a person and to recount his successes and mistakes, a habit which should be done by all. Meditations as a journal discusses topics like Stoicism, duty, calmness, and the nature of mortality, making it an entirely worthwhile read.
The introduction to the book (for the Dover Thrift Edition) includes an explanation of Stoicism, a philosophy that stresses inner peace by knowing what’s within and what’s outside your control. As was described in the text, “Stoicism, having flowed through some five hundred years of Greek and Roman history, is not so much a single systematic doctrine as a winding intellectual current. Arising and flourishing amidst the uncertainties of the Hellenistic domain of the third century B.C.-a time of political and social upheaval following the deaths of Aristotle (322 B.C.) and Alexander the Great (323 B.C.)-Stoicism stressed the search for inner peace and ethical certainty despite the apparent chaos of the external world by emulating in one’s personal conduct the underlying orderliness and lawfulness of nature” (v-vi). The founder of Stoicism, Zeno, disdained organized religion: he believed that if one wanted to honor a divine entity, they should do so through their everyday actions, not words. Stoicism is an extremely practical philosophy, seen in how it has been practiced by a variety of people, from the plebeians to senators. As stated before, the reason Stoicism is so practical is that it helps cultivate a sense of inner peace and detachment. As the book describes, “The Stoic … By focusing on those things that are within his power-his own will and perception-and detaching himself from the things that are not-health, death, the actions of others, natural disasters, and so on-he attains the inner peace (eudaimonia) of the wise and just man. This cultivated detachment (apatheia), achieved through disciplined self-restraint and moderation (sophrosyne), applies as well to the worldly allures of sensual indulgence, power, and fame, which the Stoic abjures not from puritanical repugnance but from his concern to free the soul for undistracted service to the logos.” (vi-vii). Stoicism, despite being a philosophy that emphasizes reasoned detachment, is still motivating, as it focuses on actions, not mere thoughts. Marcus Aurelius as the emperor embodied Stoic ideas, as despite being one of the most powerful people in Rome, he wasn’t depraved, nor did he spoil himself with sensory pleasures. He also didn’t really want to become the emperor, as Stoicism stated that it was detrimental to inner peace (the more you have, the more you have to lose): “Marcus’s path to the throne was a circuitous one. Hadrian’s first choice as his successor, Lucius Ceionius Commodus, died in 138, whereupon Hadrian adopted Titus Antoninus Pius (Marcus’s uncle), with the understanding that Titus would adopt both Commodus’s son and Marcus … seemingly setting up a duel succession. Upon Hadrian’s death that year, Marcus, at age seventeen, began, in effect, a twenty-three-year apprenticeship for the emperorship, serving in a variety of important governmental posts while continuing his philosophical studies. Before Titus died in 161, he recommended Marcus alone as his successor; Marcus magnanimously insisted that his adoptive brother, Lucius Verus, share the emperorship despite the latter’s apparent lack of real ability or political support” (viii). Marcus Aurelius’s reign was full of conflict, as the Roman Empire saw a plague, natural disasters (floods), foreign invasions, and treachery (a military commander, Avidius Cassius, rebelled but was betrayed and was murdered by his own soldiers – Aurelius refused his head and pardoned his family for his treason). Marcus Aurelius was said to have written Meditations while fighting the German tribes in the Danube in between battles, addressing the notes “To Himself.” He died there on March 17, 189: he was aged fifty-nine. All in all, Meditations can be seen as very popular due to “its unorthodox touches-its intimation of the idea of a personal god, its flashes of vulnerability and pain, its unwavering commitment to virtue above pleasure and to tranquillity above happiness, its unmistakable stamp of an uncompromisingly honest soul seeking the light of grace in a dark world-that lend the work its special power to charm and inspire … Nearly two millennia after Marcus set down his thoughts, they speak with undiminished eloquence, giving us pause to wonder at a man who stood at the pinnacle of worldly power yet preserved the inner life of a saint” (ix).
Meditations is composed of twelve books, each of which will be respectively discussed. Book I serves as a shout-out to those who had positively influenced Marcus Aurelius. Some of the virtues he had learned from his family and teachers include “good morals,” “the government of my temper,” “modesty and a manly character, “piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evils deeds, but even from evil thoughts,” “simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich,” a good education (he was homeschooled), the uselessness of partisanship and the resulting conflicts, “endurance of labor,” “to want little,” “to work with my own hands,” to not “meddle with other people’s affairs,” “not to be ready to listen to slander,” to be skeptical of charlatans and supposed miracle-workers, to practice good deeds instead of saying them, to read books multiple times to truly understand them, to be persevering and resistant to tribulation, to live conformably with nature, to be tolerant of others (even the ignorant), to shun flattery, to accept the flaws of others, to put aside ego (by avoiding envy and duplicity), to speak well of others, to love truth and justice, to forgive others, to hate no one, to keep few secrets, to not spend exorbitant amounts of money on worldly luxuries, and to dress simply (1-5). Aurelius proceeds to thank the gods that he got a great family, and that he had not slept with his grandfather’s concubine (or any other one before his marriage, for that matter). As he put it, “Further, I am thankful to the gods that I was not longer brought up with my grandfather’s concubine, and that I preserved the flower of my youth, and that I did not make proof of my virility before the proper season, but even deferred the time; that I was subjected to a ruler and a father who was able to take away all pride from me, and to bring me to the knowledge that it is possible for a man to live in a palace without desiring either guards or embroidered dresses, or torches and statues, and other such ostentation; but that it is in such a man’s power to bring himself very near to the fashion of a private person, without being for this reason either meaner in thought, or more remiss in action, with respect to the things that must be done for the public interest in a manner that befits a ruler” (5-6). Marcus Aurelius admits that even though his mother died not long after he was born, he was happy to have spent any time with her at all.
Book II includes some of the basic tenets of Stoicism. Aurelius tells himself that he should visualize the worst to not be discouraged by the potential evils of the world and others. In his own words, “Begun the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I, who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participate in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him. For we are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away” (8). Aurelius then tells himself that he should make the most of his life, as he has already lived a significant portion, not to mention that the body is vulnerable to a variety of things that can spell death. He admits that he believes that gods have created the universe, and tells himself that he should do the things that he doesn’t want to do due to their difficulty, as he is a part of the universe and should do his duties. He again demonstrates the Stoic concept of Amor Fati (love of fate) by writing the following: “And you will give yourself relief, if you do every act of your life as if it were the last, laying aside all carelessness, passionate aversion from the commands of reason, hypocrisy, self-love, and discontent with the portion that has been given to you” (9). Aurelius tells people to not do harm to themselves, as they are dishonoring their souls, which can leave the body at any time. Aurelius reminds himself of the importance of purpose: hard work can be useless if one’s thoughts and goals are disorganized and confused. Aurelius then states that bad actions that are committed in a fit of desire are worse than those performed in a fit of anger: “Theophrastus, in his comparison of bad acts … says, like a true philosopher, that offenses committed through desire are more blamable than those committed through anger. For he who is excited by anger seems to turn away from reason with a certain pain and unconscious contraction; but he who offends through desire, being overpowered by pleasure, seems more intemperate and more womanish in his offenses … a person who has been first wronged and through pain is compelled to be angry; but the other is moved by his own impulse to do wrong, being carried toward doing something by desire” (10). Aurelius again reminds himself that he can die at any moment, which should serve as encouragement for himself to be the best person he can be. He tells himself that death and other phenomena are neither good nor bad – it’s perception and emotion that grants them the titles of “good” or “evil,” as “death and life, honor and dishonor, pain and pleasure-all these things equally happen to good men and bad, being things which makes us neither better nor worse. Therefore they are neither good nor evil” (10). Aurelius discusses the importance of the daimon (the spirit of reason and potential that is said to reside in each individual), as it should be kept unblemished to help people to not lose sight of their goals. Aurelius elaborates on the finality of death: “Even if you were going to live three thousand years, and even ten thousand times that, still remember that no man loses any other life than this which he now lives, nor lives any other than this which he now loses. The longest and shortest are thus brought to the same. For the present is the same to all, though that which perishes is not the same; and so what is lost appears to be a mere moment … all things from eternity are of like forms and come round in a circle, and that it makes no difference whether a man shall see the same things during a hundred years or two hundred, or an infinite time; and the second, that he who lives longest and he who will die soonest lose just the same. For the present is the only thing of which a man can be deprived, if it is true that this is the only thing which he has, and that a man cannot lose something he does not already possess” (11). Aurelius writes of anger, frustration, and dissatisfaction: he interprets them as negative emotions due to the fact that they breed resentment and unhappiness, separating the individual from the universe. He writes, “For to be vexed at anything that happens is a separation of ourselves from nature, in some part of which the natures of all other things are contained. In the next place, the soul does violence to itself when it turns away from any man, or even moves toward him with the intention of injuring, as happens when people are angry. In the third place, the soul does violence to itself when it is overpowered by pleasure or by pain. Fourth, when it playacts and does or says anything, insincerely or untruly. Fifth, when it allows any act of its own and any movement to be without an aim and does anything thoughtlessly and without considering what it is-even the smallest things should be done with reference to an end; and the end of rational animals is to follow the reason and the law of the most ancient city and polity” (11-2). Aurelius states that compared to the universe, a human’s life is a mere blip. Therefore, “everything that belongs to the body is a stream, and what belongs to the soul is a dream and vapor, and life is a warfare and a stranger’s sojourn, and after-fame is oblivion” (12). When it comes to what can help a person live their life, a great answer is philosophy, which involves keeping their daimon in good shape. That is, it “consists in keeping the daimon within a man free from violence and unharmed, superior to pains and pleasures, doing nothing without a purpose, nor yet falsely and with hypocrisy, not feeling the need of another man’s doing or not doing anything; and from the same source, wherever it is, from which he himself came; and, finally, waiting for death with a cheerful mind, as being nothing else than a dissolution of the elements of which every living being is compounded. But if there is no harm to the elements themselves in each continually changing into another, why should a man have any apprehension about the change and dissolution of all the elements? For it is according to nature, and nothing is evil that is according to nature” (12).
In Book III, Aurelius states that a person has no guarantee of having his intellectual and physical faculties, as anything can happen to them: therefore, they should make the most of what they have in the moment. He then writes that much in the world (including other people) is beyond a person’s control. After all, “Hippocrates, after curing many diseases, himself fell sick and died. The Chaldaie foretold the deaths of many, and then fate caught them, too. Alexander and Pompeius and Gaius Caesar, after so often completely destroying whole cities, and in battle cutting to pieces many ten thousands of cavalry and infantry, themselves, too, at least departed from life. Heraclitus, after so many speculations on the conflagration of the universe, was filled with water and died smeared all over with cow dung. And lice destroyed Democritus; and other lice killed Socrates … You have embarked, made the voyage, and come to shore; get out. If indeed to another life, there is no want of gods, not even there. But if to a state without sensation, you will cease to be held by pains and pleasures, and to be a slave to the vessel, which is as much inferior as that which serves it is superior: for the one is intelligence and deity; the other is earth and corruption” (14). Aurelius tells himself to not waste time thinking of what others think about him, as the opinions of others are not only fickle, but utterly beyond his control. Furthermore, what reward is there is having others like you? As Schopenhauer wrote in his Essays and Aphorisms, the opinions of others are mostly useless, as they bring few to no benefits in themselves. Aurelius also states that people should refrain from thinking evil thoughts before moving back on the concept of praise: why would you want to be honored by those who criticize themselves endlessly and live in continuous dissatisfaction? Aurelius says that when work is being done, one should concentrate: however, it’s important to not be too busy, as that will take away time for self-reflection. Aurelius expresses his flexibility in the following passage: “If you find in human life anything better than justice, truth, temperance, fortitude, anything better than your own mind’s self-satisfaction in the things that it enables you to do according to right reason, and in the condition that is assigned to you without your own choice; if, I say, you see anything better than this, turn to it with all your soul, and enjoy that which you have found to be the best” (15). Aurelius talks about self-respect, writing that individuals should not allow themselves to be bought and sold by certain rewards, even if those things appear to be attractive, for they frequently come at the cost of inner peace and decency. He then tells himself to use his mind correctly: humans, being rational animals, should use their higher faculties to rationally make important decisions. He discusses the uselessness of fame and selfishness: “every man lives only the present, which is an invisible point, and that all the rest of his life is either past or is uncertain. Brief is man’s life and small the nook of the earth where he lives; brief, too, is the longest posthumous fame, buoyed only by a succession of poor human beings who will very soon die and who know little of themselves, much less of someone who died long ago” (16). Aurelius states that if a person is to be happy, they should focus on the present and remain free from worries about acquiring a certain result, as results are outside of one’s control. In his own words, “If you apply yourself to the task before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you, but keeping your divine part pure, as if you might be bound to give it back immediately; if you hold to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with your present activities according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which you utter, you will live happily. And there is no man who is able to prevent this” (17). He tells himself that just as how a doctor has the proper medical equipment for surgery and other medical procedures, people should keep their principles close by to help them in times of hardship. He then allots certain feelings to various faculties: “the body belong sensations, to the soul appetites, to the intelligence principles” (17-8). That is, those who allow sensual pleasure to determine their lives have little control over themselves, allowing their inner daimon to be degraded. Those who stick to their principles, on the other hand, allow themselves to be governed by the better portion of their nature, to their benefit. He ends the section with the following sentence: “And if all men refuse to believe that he lives a simple, modest, and contented life, he is neither angry with any of them, nor does he deviate from the way that leads to the end of life, to which a man ought to come pure, tranquil, ready to depart, and without any compulsion, perfectly reconciled to his lot” (18).
Book IV begins with a fantastic piece of observation: those who frequently travel are frequently disturbed by things outside of their control and within themselves. Therefore, when they travel, they are trying to flee from their problems. However, this is ineffective: wherever they go, their conscience will follow. Therefore, the best way to deal with inner turmoil is to retreat into one’s own mind, coming to peace with what has and what will happen: “tranquility is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind. Constantly then give to yourself this retreat, and renew yourself, and let your principles be brief and fundamental, which, as soon as you recur to them, will be sufficient to cleanse the soul completely, and to send you back free from all discontent with the things to which you return” (19). Aurelius states that when it comes to disappointment, a great way to deal with it is to lower your expectations when it comes to others and accept what happens (Aurelius reminds himself to attribute whatever happens to divine providence). Aurelius speaks once again of the desire for glory (especially posthumous fame): the desire is quite foolish, seeing how insignificant humanity is. In his own words “See how soon everything is forgotten, and look at the chaos of infinite time on each side of the present, and the emptiness of applause, and the fickleness and lack of judgment in those who pretend to give praise, and the narrowness of its domain, and be quiet at last. For the whole earth is a point, and how small a nook in it is this your dwelling, and how few are there in it, and what kind of people are they who will praise thee” (20). Aurelius writes that all humans belong to the human race, despite the few differences we have. Aurelius then says that death is a natural process and shouldn’t be feared (like eating, sleeping, and defecating) and that a way to deal with envy is to remember your insignificance, as well as that of the other person. He states that much of the harm in events that occur to people happens because of their judgments and opinions: if they get rid of them, much of the unnecessary pain will be removed. He recommends that people do the right actions for the right reasons: people should change their opinions and corresponding deeds out of a sense of logic and ethics, not for glory or praise. Aurelius states that things that are beautiful need no one to validate their aesthetic appeal: they are gorgeous in and of themselves. He asks himself of the existence of souls, and implicitly introduces the fact that humans aren’t superior to other animals: if it’s true that only humans have souls, why do we deserve them and not other animals? Furthermore, a gargantuan number of animals die and are devoured every day – do their souls continue to exist? Aurelius calls for himself to get rid of activities that are unnecessary, as people have only a finite amount of time and energy: time is precious, so it shouldn’t be wasted on superfluous actions. Aurelius elegantly states the utter insignificance of organisms on Earth when the big picture is seen clearly: “Consider, for example, the times of Vespasian. You will see all these things, people marrying, bringing up children, sick, dying, warring, feasting, trafficking, cultivating the ground, flattering, obstinately arrogant, suspecting, plotting, wishing for some to die, grumbling about the present, loving, heaping up treasure, desiring consulship, kingly power. Well then, that life of these people no longer exists at all. Again, remove to the times of Trajan. Again, all is the same. Their life, too, is gone. In like manner view also the other epochs of time and of whole nations, and see how many after great efforts soon fell and were resolved into the elements” (24). Aurelius writes once again of fame: those who are most famous are remembered for only a while (even if they’re remembered for “long” periods of time, the centuries which they are remembered are utterly insignificant compared to the age of the earth and cosmos). On the other hand, regular people are almost immediately forgotten the moment they die: only their family and some friends grieve their death (if they have any by that point of time at all), yet even they have to move on with their lives (and meet their respective demises later on in the future). Aurelius uses this realization as a call to action to be a better person: “What then is that about which we ought to employ our serious pains? This one thing, just thoughts, and social acts, and words that never lie, and a disposition that gladly accepts all that happens as necessary, as usual, as flowing from a principle and source of the same kind” (24-5). Aurelius details that he believes the universe has a single soul, as this reinforces the central theme of harmony, mutual cooperation, and reasoned resignation. He writes (similarly to what he had included before): “Think continually how many physicians are dead after often contracting their eyebrows over the sick; and how many astrologers after predicting with great pretensions the deaths of others; and how many philosophers after endless discourses on death or immortality; how many heroes after killing thousands; and how many tyrants who have used their power over men’s lives with terrible insolence as if they were immortal; and how many cities are entirely dead … Add to the reckoning all those you have known, one after another. One man after burying another has been laid out dead, and another buries him: and all this in a short time. To conclude, always observe how ephemeral and worthless human things are, and what was yesterday a speck of semen tomorrow will be a mummy or ashes. Pass then through this little space of time conformably to nature, and end your journey in content, just as an olive falls off when it is ripe, blessing nature who produced it and thanking the tree on which it grew” (26-7). Aurelius continues with the following brilliant words: “It is a vulgar but still a useful help toward contempt of death to pass in review those who have tenaciously stuck to life. What more have they gained than those who have died early? … the interval is small between birth and death; and consider with how much trouble, and in company with what sort of people and in what a feeble body, this interval is laboriously passed. Do not then consider life a thing of any value. For look to the immensity of time behind you and to the time that is ahead of you, another boundless space. In this infinity, then, what is the difference between him who lives three days and him who lives three generations?” (27). Aurelius finalizes by stating that when it comes to doing deeds, large and fancy displays should be avoided, as they’re neither necessary nor helpful to the overall product.
Aurelius begins Book V by stating that humans, as animals and inhabitants of the earth, should fulfill their duties, even if they don’t want to. In vivid language, he details, “In the morning, when you rise unwillingly, let this thought be present: I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie under the blankets and keep myself warm? But this is more pleasant. Do you exist then to take your pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? Do you not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their separate parts of the universe? And are you unwilling to do the work of a human being, and do you not make haste to do that which is according to your nature. But it is necessary to take rest also. It is necessary: nature, however, has fixed bounds to this, too: she has fixed bounds both to eating and drinking, and yet you go beyond these bounds, beyond what is sufficient; yet in your acts it is not so, but you stop short of what you can do. So you do not love yourself, for if you did, you would love your nature and her will” (28). Aurelius then states that if a person comes across disadvantages, they shouldn’t grumble about them and do nothing: if they truly want their situation to improve, they must be willing to put in the required effort and exertions. Aurelius calls for himself and the audience to be generous to others: when one does favors for others, they shouldn’t think only of a future repayment, as humans are social animals that need to cooperate to survive and flourish – doing the good deed should be the reward in and of itself. Aurelius recommends that when one fails, one should continue trying while remembering the big picture and what they could achieve: a few setbacks shouldn’t discourage a person from living a virtuous and decent life. Aurelius reminds himself that death isn’t the end for the body, as the body will break down into elements that will be endlessly recycled by the universe (which is eerily true to a large extent: humans and all other lifeforms on Earth have the stardust of a star which has exploded long ago): “Every part of me then will be reduced by change into some part of the universe, and that again will change into another part of the universe, and so on forever. And by consequence of such a change, I, too, exist, and those who begot me, and so on forever in the other direction. For nothing hinders us from saying so, even if the universe is administered according to definite periods of revolution” (32). Aurelius moves on to say that philosophy needs more than good words: good deeds are needed to back up the claims of the individual studying philosophy (ex. they can refrain from unhealthy and malevolent activity, they can try to actively do good, they can accept the things that aren’t in their control, and they can practice self-reflection). Aurelius writes that one’s thoughts affect one’s personality; also, repetition creates character. Therefore, it is vital for people to not only refrain from thinking of evil, but imagining the correct thoughts, like the following: “where a man can live, there he can also live well” (33). Aurelius offers the following piece of advice for those struggling with problems: “Nothing happens to any man that he is not formed by nature to bear. The same things happen to another, and either because he does not see that they have happened or because he would show a great spirit, he is firm and remains unharmed” (33). Aurelius writes that even though humanity is capable of great things, numerous individuals act out of stupidity or ill-intent: the best way to deal with them is to accept their actions and to keep to yourself. Furthermore, one can use their negative behavior as motivation for self-improvement, as one can see what one may turn into if they’re not careful (I apologize if this sounds condescending and presumptuous, but this is a key tenet of motivation for many people): “Now it is true that these may impede my action, but they are no impediments to my affects and disposition, which have the power of acting conditionally and changing: for the mind converts and changes every hindrance to its activity into an aid; and so that which is a hindrance is made a furtherance to an act; and an obstacle on the road helps us along this road” (33).
Aurelius then states that if a person is irritated by another, they should refrain from rage: at the very least, they should inform the person making them angry of their mistake or folly so that they may correct it. After all, much of what is attributed to malice actually comes from ignorance. Also, getting angry at the individual who may be unaware of their folly is counter-productive, as that will only worsen the situation. Aurelius states that when it comes to one’s personal conduct, people should aim for other people to say the following of them: “Never has he wronged a man in deed or word.” Of course, this standard is very high, but that’s the point: living a virtuous life isn’t supposed to be easy, and it requires effort and rigorous self-examination. Book VI includes Aurelius’s statement that one shouldn’t wish for any particular thing, as every event is within life itself. He also includes the following (albeit hard to practice) piece of advice: “The best way of avenging yourself is not to become like the wrongdoer” (37). Aurelius calls for people to see things for what they really are: meat is really the corpses of animals, good clothing was made from entirely different materials, and sex (desired by most people) is a task that concludes with the relatively unspectacular process of ejaculation (and everything before that was simply supposed to lead up to it). Aurelius calls for people to not desire or actively pursue vengeance, as the appetite for “justice” isn’t easily quenched (not to mention that it causes people to loathe you even more, even if your action was relatively reasonable and understandable). Aurelius encourages people to treat animals well, as the insight of humans can be extremely fine-tuned if it is frequently practiced: therefore, people should use their intelligence charitably by conducting actions they would be fine with if they were dealt to them (this piece of advice is almost completely unheeded: humans slay more than 150 billion animals a year for sake of taste while there are plenty of other replacements that provide more than adequate nourishment). Aurelius then provides the following definition for death: it is “a cessation of the impressions through the senses, and of the pulling of the strings that move the appetites, and of the discursive movements of the thoughts, and of the service to the flesh” (41). Aurelius immediately follows up with a quote that is quite popular today: “It is a shame for the soul to be first to give way in this life, when your body does not give way” (41). Put in simpler words, “It is terrible for a person’s spirit to die before they do.” Aurelius states that one should not pursue goals that are too worldly, seeing how short life is and how unpredictable events can be: since “achievements” generally mean nothing in the long run, people shouldn’t try to reach them by hurting others (ex. by cheating, slander, or betrayal). Aurelius specifically mentions Antoninus Pius (another one of the Five Good Emperors of Rome), saying that it would be greatly advised for people to follow his behavior, as he was happy with very little, and treated others with magnanimity, fairness, and consideration. He again says that the universe is a social being, and that most humans are working towards a common goal, albeit in different ways (he says this can be seen with the division of labor: some people are doctors while others are field laborers). He encourages people to not only accept what happens to them, but to genuinely try to appreciate those around them: feigned admiration and love do not help at all. Marcus Aurelius clarifies, “One thing here is worth a great deal: to pass your life in truth and justice, with a benevolent disposition even to liars and unjust men” (45). He also says that people, instead of criticizing others, should try to find their strengths instead, as “nothing delights so much as the examples of the virtues when they are exhibited in the morals of those who live with us and present themselves in abundance, as far as is possible” (45). Aurelius writes, “That which is not good for the swarm is not good for the bee either” (45).
In Book VII, Aurelius states that if one wants to keep their principles, they have to remember why they adhere to them, as well as memories that testify to their importance, as people require evidence to continue to do certain things. He says that people shouldn’t be ashamed when they need to be helped by others, as it is perfectly natural to occasionally require assistance. He elucidates, “Do not let the future disturb you, for you will arrive there, if you arrive, with the same reason you now apply to the present” (48). He then adds (somewhat threateningly), “Be upright, or be made upright” (48). Aurelius clarifies the difference between the mind and the body (although the mind is still heavily dependent on the body: for instance, if you’re sick and therefore unconscious, your mind will be greatly disabled): “Let the body itself take care, if it can, that it suffer nothing, and let it speak, if it suffers. But the soul itself, that which is subject to fear, to pain, which has completely the power of forming a judgment about these things, will suffer nothing, for it will never deviate into such a judgment. The leading principle in itself wants nothing, unless it creates its own needs; and therefore it is both free from perturbation and unimpeded if it does not disturb and impede itself” (49). Aurelius tersely writes about time and death: “In a little while you will have forgotten everything; in a little while everything will have forgotten you” (49). He also states, “It is peculiar to man to love even those who do wrong. And this happens, if when they do wrong it occurs to you that they are fellow humans and that they do wrong through ignorance and unintentionally, and that soon both of you will die; and above all, that the wrongdoer has done you no harm, for he has not made your ruling faculty worse than it was before” (49). Aurelius then recommends that people not scowl at all, for doing it too often quickly makes it a negative habit: “the result is that all comeliness dies away, and at last is so completely extinguished that it cannot be again lighted up at all” (50). Aurelius introduces the concept of appreciation: instead of complaining of what you don’t have, rejoice in what you do possess. That is, “Think not so much of what you lack as of what you have: but of the things that you have, select the best, and then reflect how eagerly you would have sought them if you did not have them. At the same time, however, take care that you do not through being so pleased with them accustom yourself to overvalue them, so as to be disturbed if you should ever not have them” (50). Aurelius says that vain imaginings should be abandoned: losing yourself in a hypothetical daydream does nothing to benefit your lot, and also makes you dissatisfied and unconcentrated. Aurelius makes it clear that cultivation of one’s mind is extremely important, as he bemoaned how “It is a base thing for the countenance to be obedient and to regulate and compose itself as the mind commands, and for the mind not to be regulated and composed by itself” (51). Aurelius eventually comes to provide a list of duties that should be pursued by people: “The prime principle then in man’s constitution is the social. And the second is not to yield to the persuasions of the body, for it is the peculiar office of the rational and intelligent motion to circumscribe itself, and never to be overpowered either by the motion of the senses or of the appetites, for both are animal … The third thing in the rational constitution is freedom from error and from deception. Let then the ruling principle, holding fast to these things, go straight on, and it has what is its own” (53). It is soon mentioned that people have a lot of inner potential, so long as they’re willing to be comfortable with themselves: “Look within. Within is the fountain of good, and it will ever bubble up, if you will ever dig” (53). Aurelius continues to discuss pain, specifying that “there is no dishonor in it, nor does it make the governing intelligence worse, for it does not damage the intelligence either so far as the intelligence is rational or so far as it is social. Indeed in the case of most pains let this remark of Epicurus aid you, that pain is neither intolerable nor everlasting if you bear in mind that it has its limits, and if you add nothing to it in imagination: and remember this, too, that we do not perceive that many things that are disagreeable to us are the same as pain, such as excessive drowsiness, and being scorched by heat, and having no appetite. When then you are discontented about any of these things, say to yourself that you are yielding to pain” (54).
Aurelius states that very little is needed from a material standpoint to be happy: save basic necessities like food, shelter, and clothing, there’s not much more. Furthermore, he says that every individual can live an ethical life, even if they are in an extremely hostile environment: even if terrible things are done to you, your mind is still your own. Aurelius then provides his definition of a good individual: “passing every day as if it were the last, and in being neither violently excited nor torpid nor playing the hypocrite” (55). Aurelius again makes it clear of the importance of knowing what’s within your control: instead of criticizing the weaknesses of others, focus on yourself first. As he put it, “It is a ridiculous thing for a man not to fly from his own badness, which is indeed possible, but to fly from other men’s badness, which is impossible” (55). In Book VIII, Aurelius reminds himself to be mindful, as he should recollect his mortality and think about the consequences of the actions which he pursues. He also discusses comparisons between conquerors and philosophers: “Alexander and Gaius and Pompeius, what are they in comparison with Diogenes and Heraclitus and Socrates? For the latter were acquainted with things, and their causes (forms), and their matter, and the ruling principles of these men were the same. But as to the former, how many things had they to care for, and to how many things were they slaves” (57). Aurelius comes to state the following: “you have leisure or ability to check arrogance: you have leisure to be superior to pleasure and pain: you have leisure to be superior to love of fame, and not to be vexed at stupid and ungrateful people, nay even to care for them” (58). He soon states that people should expect to face misfortunes and to have setbacks: just like how a fig tree produces figs, the world would produce many events that can cause a large amount of suffering and pain if not handled correctly by the individuals facing it. Aurelius remembers the weakness and strangeness of the human body: if the inside and outside switch places, an unwelcome sight would be beheld: “Turn it (the body) inside out, and see what kind of thing it is; and when it has grown old, what kind of thing it becomes, and when it is diseased” (60). Aurelius writes of the three biggest types of relations for individuals and those around them: “the one to the body that surrounds you; the second to the divine cause from which all things come to all; and the third to those who live with you” (60-1). Aurelius says that while it is pleasant to possess wealth, one shouldn’t be too attached to it, and should be willing to let it go: Lady Fortuna’s affections are prone to change. Aurelius celebrates the human intellect: although it’s possible for a person to isolate themself from others, thereby violating the divine order of unity, it is still within their power to reconcile themself with others through intentional effort. Aurelius states that this is miraculous, as if a hand is cut off from a person, it cannot be simply reattached; similar to how a hand is an essential part of anatomy, the individual plays a vital role in their respective community – while the former can’t be healed, the latter can. Aurelius aptly summarizes Stoicism with the following section: “If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now. But if anything in your own disposition gives you pain, who hinders you from correcting your opinion? And even if you are pained because you are not doing some particular thing that seems to you to be right, why do you not rather act than complain? ‘But some insuperable obstacle is in the way.’ Do not be grieved then, for the cause of its not being done depends not on you. ‘But it is not worthwhile to live if this cannot be done.’ Take your departure then from life contentedly, just as he dies who is in full activity, and well pleased, too, with the things that are obstacles” (63-4). It should be mentioned that when it comes to departing from life (suicide), the Stoics were proponents for it: they believed that wise people live as long as necessary as judged by them, not as long as they could live, seeing that there is no true “ending” to life. Furthermore, they saw suicide (when done calmly and logically, frequently in the presence of friends and family) as a noble deed, as the deceased has conquered their fear of death and has taken their life into their own hands (quite literally in many occasions: Seneca, a Stoic who was the tutor of Nero, committed suicide by slitting his wrists).
Aurelius continues to show his pragmatism: he states that if you face a problem, deal with it as effectively as possible instead of complaining as to why the obstacles were created in the first place, seeing that it is quite likely that you would be laughed at by experts in the field you are referring to who know much more about the problems than you do, not to mention that complaining doesn’t make anything better at all. Aurelius clarifies, “Men exist for the sake of one another”; therefore, “Teach them then or bear with them” (66). In Book IX, Aurelius states that committing injustice is blasphemy to the gifters of rationality for human beings and other animals (the concept of evolution, of course, wasn’t invented yet), seeing how Aurelius stated that animals were given rationality to cooperate, not to harm each other: “the universal nature has made rational animals for the sake of one another to help one another according to their deserts, but in no way to injure one another, he who transgresses her will is clearly guilty of impiety toward the highest divinity” (67). These injustices include intemperance: avoiding all pain (including constructive ones) and pursuing only vain, fleeting pleasures is an abomination, seeing how the intellect and the chance for self-improvement are being spurned when one adopts such a meaningless quest. Aurelius, keeping to the concept of morality, says that the best thing for a human is being as pure and virtuous as possible: “It would be a man’s happiest lot to depart from mankind without having had any taste of lying and hypocrisy and luxury and pride. However, to breathe out one’s life when a man has had enough of these things is the next best voyage, as the saying goes” (68). Marcus Aurelius gives the following maxims, all of which are extremely applicable in daily life: (1) “He who does wrong does wrong against himself. He who acts unjustly acts unjustly to himself, because he makes himself bad,” (2) “He often acts unjustly who does not do a certain thing; not only he who does a certain thing,” (3) ”Your present opinion founded on understanding, and your present conduct directed to social good, and your present disposition of contentment with everything that happens-that is enough,” and (4) “Wipe out imagination: check desire: extinguish appetite: keep the ruling faculty in its own power” (69). Personally, my favorite piece of advice in the prior list is the first, for many who commit foul deeds for the sake of greed and lust are only harming themselves by destroying their morality, which is quite sad to behold firsthand. Aurelius hypothesizes that animals have souls, seeing their potentially organized behavior (swarms of bees, herds of cattle, flocks of birds). Aurelius states that trying to change the world (thereby affecting others) is primarily manifest in active, not passive, action, seeing that the former involves a greater impact on a greater number of people while the latter is frequently localized and restricted to oneself. Aurelius refreshingly clarifies that politics isn’t philosophy: politics frequently involves squabbles, vicious bickering, and tribalism (frequently, people of other political parties are viewed as somehow inferior or deluded) while philosophy focuses on trying to improve the lives and conduct of everyone. Although it’s true that philosophy can be opinionated, as a whole it is a much more skeptical field than politics and religion: most philosophers don’t claim to be telling the truth, seeing that they generally know there is much more information outside of their comprehension and control. Aurelius gives the following piece of advice (although it’s very similar to some given before, I still feel it’s worth stating): “You can rid yourself of many useless things among those that disturb you, for they lie entirely in your imagination; and you will then gain for yourself ample space by comprehending the whole universe in your mind, and by contemplating the eternity of time, and observing the rapid change of every part of everything, how short is the time from birth to dissolution, and the illimitable time before birth as well as the equally boundless time after dissolution” (72-3). Indeed, the universe is calculated to have existed for 14.5 billion years, a time scale too colossal for people to imagine. Furthermore, the universe is believed by some scientists to be in its infancy: even if it’s not, it will continue to exist for an unimaginable amount of time long, long, long after our respective demises. Aurelius then discusses the problem for wishing certain things to happen: instead of asking for a desired outcome, people will do well to ask instead for the fortitude and inner peace needed to no longer care (or at least too much) about achieving said outcome, seeing that it’s very unlikely to give them lasting happiness. However, if they have inner strength, this trait will benefit them for the rest of their lives. That is, “One man prays thus: How might I sleep with that woman? Do you pray: How shall I not desire to sleep with her? Another prays thus: How shall I be released from this? Another prays: How shall I not desire to be released? Another thus: How shall I not be afraid to lose him?” (74). Aurelius recommends that even if one is sick, they should continue to pursue philosophy: when Epicurus was ill, he largely ignored his physical discomfort, talking instead of what he was passionate about (philosophy), seeing how focusing on being sick is of no use, while putting one’s energy in what one’s interested in does bring about benefits.
In Book X, Aurelius tells himself that he should strive to be deserving of worthy adjectives (he refers to them as “names”). He discusses rationality, equanimity, and magnanimity: “the term ‘rational’ was intended to signify a discriminating attention to every object and freedom from negligence; and that ‘equanimity’ is the voluntary acceptance of the things that are assigned to you by the common nature; and that ‘magnanimity’ is the elevation of the intelligent part above the pleasurable or painful sensations of the flesh, and above that poor thing called fame, and death, and all such things. If, then, you maintain yourself in the possession of these names, without desiring to hear them addressed to you by others, you will be another person and will enter on another life” (78). Aurelius then gives a piece of practical yet motivating advice: “No longer talk at all about the kind of man that a good man ought to be, but be such” (80). Aurelius states that when it comes to accepting the past and dealing with the future, one will do well to imagine that the same type of event is happening again, just with different individuals (who are largely the same nevertheless). In his own words, “place before your eyes entire dramas and stages of the same form, whatever you have learned from your experience or from older history; for example, the whole court of Hadrian, and the whole court of Antoninus, and the whole court of Philip, Alexander, Croesus; for all those were dramas such as we see now, only with different actors” (81). Aurelius recommends that before you judge any individual for their faults, you should remind yourself of your own: anger frequently comes from a place of moral judgment, so when one is reminded of one’s own fallibilities and weaknesses, one will refrain from acting purely on wrath. Aurelius then compares leaves to human lives: just like how leaves are blown around recklessly by the wind, eventually coming to a stop on the ground, so is human life influenced largely by luck, and comes to an end shortly as well (compared to the age of the universe). Aurelius writes that another reason why people shouldn’t fear death is the problems and follies of the world: being deprived of the potential of being victimized by these follies and issues is a net positive. To be specific, he mentions that humans, though being social animals, are still very selfish and could loathe even the virtuous. As he put it, “You will consider this then when you are dying, and you will depart more contentedly by reflecting thus: I am going away from a life in which even my associates, in behalf for whom I have striven so much, prayed, and cared, themselves wish me to depart, hoping perchance to get some little advantage by it. Why then should a man cling to a longer stay here? Do not, however, for this reason go away less kindly disposed to them, but preserving your own character, friendly and benevolent and mild, and not as if you were torn away; but rather should your withdrawal from them be as that gentle slipping away of soul from body that we can see when a man makes a peaceful end. For nature united you to them, and now she dissolves the union. I am separated as from kinsmen-not, however, dragged while resisting, but without compulsion; for this, too, is one of the things according to nature” (84).
In Book XI, Aurelius mandates that a truly rational soul undergoes self-examination and tries to improve itself. Aurelius describes that he believes that art is inferior to nature, since art is almost completely based off of nature (since it comes from the perception of human beings, who are a part of nature and frequently focus on landscapes, animals, and other human beings when it comes to the subjects of the pieces of expression). He states a major weakness of humanity by writing: “Men despise one another and flatter one another; and men wish to raise themselves above one another, and crouch before one another” (88). He says that people shouldn’t say they’re going to be fair with someone else: they should show their fairness and decency in their actions. Aurelius maintains that the most disgusting thing in the world is a “wolfish friendship” (toxic “friendship”), as that involves not only deception but flattery and willful self-delusion, seeing that the person being preyed on may suspect something unusual, only to ignore it against their better judgment. Aurelius states that people should avoid flattery and try to pursue honesty. Aside from that, they should pursue a good character: “consider that a good disposition is invincible, if it is genuine and not an affected smile and acting a part” (90). Aurelius acknowledges that there are truly wicked individuals in the world, writing that “to expect bad men not to do wrong is madness, for he who expects this desires an impossibility. But to allow men to behave so to others, and to expect them not to do you any wrong, is irrational and tyrannical” (90). Aurelius then reminds himself once more of the application of virtues: “Neither in writing nor in reading will you be able to lay down rules for others before you shall have first learned to obey rules yourself. Much more is this so in life” (92). In Book XII, Aurelius states that humans are composed of bodies, breath (life), and intelligence. “Of these the first two are yours insofar as it is your duty to take care of them; but the third alone is truly yours” (93). He says that people should trust in themselves without being arrogant, especially when it comes to their actions and perception of their worth, seeing how the opinions of others are prone to error, as they don’t know the entire story of an individual: “I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others. If then a god or a wise teacher should present himself to a man and bid him to think of nothing and to design nothing that he would not express as soon as he conceived it, he could not endure it even for a single day. So it is clear that we accord much more respect to what our neighbors think of us than to what we think of ourselves” (94). Aurelius soon provides himself with three guidelines for right action: “First, do nothing either inconsiderately or otherwise than as justice herself would act; and with respect to what may happen to you from without, consider than it happens either by chance or according to Providence, and you must neither blame chance nor accuse Providence. Second, consider what every being is from the seed to the time of its receiving a soul, and from the reception of a soul to the giving back of the same, and of what things every being is compounded and into what things it is resolved. Third, if you should suddenly be raised up above the earth, and should look down on human beings and observe their infinite variety, you will despise them. If at that time you should also see at a glance how great is the number of beings who dwell all around in the air and the ether, consider that as often as you should be raised up, you would see the same things, sameness of form and shortness of duration. Are these things to be proud of?” (96-7). Aurelius ends his work with the following section: “Man, you have been a citizen in this great state (the world): what difference does it make to you whether for five years or a hundred? For under its laws equal treatment is meted out to all. What hardship then is there in being banished from the city, not by a tyrant or an unjust judge but by nature, who brought you into it? So might a praetor who has employed an actor dismiss him from the stage. ‘But I have not played my five acts, but only three.’ Very possibly, but in life three acts are the whole drama; for what shall be a complete drama is determined by Him who was once the cause of its composition, and now of its dissolution: but you are the cause of neither. Depart then satisfied, for He also who releases you is satisfied” (99).
Read it online:
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is a truly great piece of personal recollection, not just a philosophical work (because, as stated before, it’s highly untraditional when it comes to what is discussed, a trend only exacerbated by Aurelius’s repeated statements of Providence and divine entities). Aurelius writes clearly and powerfully of the true essence of life, the pursuit of power, glory, and fame, death, ethics, time, and humanity’s position in the cosmos. His tips are mostly practical, and should be followed by everyone, even those who don’t believe in the gods he’s referring to (many of the Romans at the time, including him, believed the stars to be divine entities), seeing that trying to exercise reasoned resignation, inner peace, justice, kindness, understanding, discipline, and satisfaction is beneficial not just to the individual, but to society at large. I highly recommend Meditations to anyone interested in diaries, philosophy, reality, self-improvement, and human nature.
Get the book: