Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations Is The Best Manual We Have On How To Live

ISBN: 048629823X

Marcus Aurelius was the only Roman emperor who fits the title of “philosopher king” as described by Plato, ruling with wisdom and prudence gained from his Stoic teachers. Thankfully for us, he maintained a diary called Meditations that relayed his knowledge and what he learned during his life. I became interested in reading it after getting value from his predecessors Epictetus and Seneca.

Below are my favorite passages from Meditations, organized by topic:

Remaining unaffected

From Apollonius [I learned] moral freedom, the certainty to ignore the dice of fortune, and have no other perspective, even for a moment, than that of reason alone; to be always the same man, unchanged in sudden pain, in the loss of a child, in lingering sickness.

[…]

From Maximum [I learned] self-mastery, immune to any passing whim; good cheer in all circumstances, including illness; a nice balance of character, both gentle and dignified; and uncomplaining energy for what needs to be done.

[…]

If this is no wrongdoing of mine, nor the results of any wrong done to me, and if the community is not harmed, then why do I let it trouble me? And what is the harm that can be done to the community?

Existence

It is high time now for you to understand the universe of which you are a part, and the governor of that universe of whom you constitute an emanation: and that there is a limit circumscribed to your time—if you do not use it to clear away your clouds, it will be gone, and you will be gone, and the opportunity will not return.

[…]

You may leave this life at any moment: have this possibility in your mind in all that you do or say or think. Now departure from the world of men is nothing to fear, if gods exist: because they would not involve you in any harm. If they do not exist, or if they have no care for humankind, then what is life to me in a world devoid of gods, or devoid of providence?

[…]

In man’s life his time is a mere instant, his existence a flux, his perception fogged, his whole bodily composition rotting, his mind a whirligig, his fortune unpredictable, his fame unclear. To put it shortly: all things of the body stream away like a river, all things of the mind are dreams and delusion; life is warfare, and a visit in a strange land; the only lasting fame is oblivion.

[…]

You are a soul carrying a corpse, as Epictetus used to say.

[…]

Think constantly how many doctors have died, after knitting their brows over their own patients; how many astrologers, after predicting the deaths of others, as if death were something important; how many philosophers, after endless deliberation on death or immortality; how many heroes, after the many others they killed; how many tyrants, after using their power over men’s lives with monstrous insolence, as if they themselves were immortal. Think too how many whole cities have ‘died’—Helice, Pompeii, Herculaneium, innumerable others. Go over now all those you have known yourself, one after the other: one man follows a friend’s funeral and is then laid out himself, then another follows him—and all in a brief space of time. The conclusion of this? You should always look on human life as short and cheap. Yesterday sperm: tomorrow a mummy or ashes.

So one should pass through this tiny fragment of time in tune with nature, and leave it gladly, as an olive might fall when ripe, blessing the earth which bore it and grateful to the tree which gave it growth.

[…]

Look back over the past—all those many changes of dynasties. And you can foresee the future too: it will be completely alike, incapable of deviating from the rhythm of the present. So for the study of human life forty years are as good as ten thousand: what more will you see?

[…]

‘No soul’, says Plato, ‘likes to be robbed of truth’—and the same holds of justice, moderation, kindness, and all such virtues.

[…]

Nothing can happen to any human being outside the experience which is natural to humans—an ox too experiences nothing foreign to the nature of oxen, a vine nothing foreign to the nature of vines, a stone nothing outside the property of a stone. So if each thing experiences what is usual and natural for it, why should you complain? Universal nature has brought you nothing you can’t endure.

Living a “long” life

It follows that the longest and the shortest lives are brought to the same state. The present moment is equal for all; so what is passing is equal also; the loss therefore turns out to be the merest fragment of time. No one can lose either the past or the future—how could anyone be deprived of what he does not possess?

[…]

…both the longest-lived and the earliest to die suffer the same loss. It is only the present moment of which either stands to be deprived: and if indeed this is all he has, he cannot lose what he does not have.

[…]

We must take into our reckoning not only that life is expended day by day and the remaining balance diminishes, but also this further consideration: if we live longer, there is no guarantee that our mind will likewise retain that power to comprehend and study the world which contributes to our experience of things divine and human.

[…]

An unphilosophic but nonetheless effective help to putting death in its place is to run over the list of those who have clung long to life. What did they gain over the untimely dead? Any any rate they are all in their graves by now—Caedicianus, Fabius, Julianus, Lepidus, and all others like them who took part in many funerals and then their own. In truth, the distance we have to travel is small: and we drag it out with such labour, in such poor company, in such a feeble body. No great thing, then. Look behind you at the huge gulf of time, and another infinity ahead. In this perspective what is the difference between an infant of three days and a Nestor of three generations?

[…]

But, my dear fellow, consider it possible that nobility and virtue are something other than saving one’s life or having it saved. Could it not be that anyone who is truly a man should dismiss any concern for a particular length of life, and not simply live for the sake of living? Rather he should leave all this to god and believe what the womenfolk say, that no one ever escapes the day of his fate: his thought should be on this further question, how best to live his life in the time he has to be alive.

[…]

All that you see will soon perish; those who witness this perishing will soon perish themselves. Die in extreme old age or die before your time—it will all be the same.

Accepting death

…and if anyone is frightened of a function of nature, he is a mere child. And death is not only a function of nature, but also to her benefit.

[…]

What of [death], then? You embarked, you set sail, you made port. Go ashore now. If it is to another life, nothing is empty of the gods, even on that shore: and if to insensibility, you will cease to suffer pains and pleasures, no longer in thrall to a bodily vessel which is a master as far inferior as its servant is superior. One is mind and divinity: the other a clay of dust and blood.

[…]

He who fears death fears either unconsciousness or another sort of consciousness. Now if you will no longer be conscious you will not be conscious either of anything bad. If you are to take on a different consciousness, you will be a different being and life will not cease.

Five ways a soul harms itself

The soul of a man harms itself, first and foremost, when it becomes (as far as it can) a separate growth, a sort of tumour on the universe: because to resent anything that happens is to separate oneself in revolt from Nature, which holds in collective embrace the particular natures of all other things. Secondly, when it turns away from another human being, or is even carries so far in opposition as to intend him harm—such is the case in the souls of those gripped by anger. A soul harms itself, thirdly, when it gives in to pleasure or pain. Fourthly, whenever it dissimulates, doing or saying anything feigned or false. Fifthly, whenever it fails to direct any of its own actions or impulses to a goal, but acts at random, without conscious attention—whereas even the most trivial action should be undertaken in reference to the end.

Experiencing pleasure

‘But better is what benefits.’ If to your benefit as a rational being, adopt it: but if simply to your benefit as an animal, reject it, and stick to your judgement without fanfare.

[…]

Never regard as a benefit to yourself anything which will force you at some point to break your faith, to leave integrity behind, to hate, suspect, or curse another, to dissemble, to covet anything needing the secrecy of walls and drapes.

Work

At break of day, when you are reluctant to get up, have this thought ready to mind: ‘I am getting up for a man’s work. Do I still then resent it, if I am going out to do what I was born for, the purpose for which I was brought into the world? Or was I created to wrap myself in blankets and keep warm?’ ‘But this is more pleasant.’ Were you then born for pleasure—all for feeling, not for action? Can you not see plants, birds, ants, spiders, bees all doing their own work, each helping in their one way to order the world? And then you do not want to do the work of a human being—you do not hurry to the demands of your own nature. ‘But one needs rest too.’ One does indeed: I agree. But nature has set limits to this too, just as it has to eating and drinking, and yet you go beyond these limits, beyond what you need. Not in your actions, though, not any longer: here you stay below your capability.

The cycle of life

There is a river of creation, and time is a violent stream. As soon as one thing comes into sight, it is swept past and another is carried down: it too will be taken on its way.

[…]

All that happens is as habitual and familiar as roses in spring and fruit in the summer. True too of disease, death, defamation, and conspiracy—and all that delights or gives pain to fools.

[…]

Reflect often on the speed with which all things in being, or coming into being, are carried past and swept away. Existence is like a river in ceaseless flow, its actions a constant succession of change, its causes innumerable in their variety: scarcely anything stands still, even what is most immediate. Reflect too on the yawning gulf of past and future time, in which all things vanish. So in all this it must be folly for anyone to be puffed with ambition, racked in struggle, or indignant at his lot—as if this was anything lasting or likely to trouble him for long.

[…]

Some things are hurrying to come into being, others are hurrying to be gone, and part of that which is being born is already extinguished. Flows and changes are constantly renewing the world, just as the ceaseless passage of time makes eternity ever young. In this river, then, when there can be no foothold, what should anyone prize of all that races past him? It is as if he were to begin to fancy one of the little sparrows that fly past—but already it is gone from his sight. Indeed this is the nature of our very lives—as transient as the exhalation of vapour from the blood or a breath drawn from the air.

[…]

You should meditate often on the connection of all things in the universe and their relationship to each other. In a way all things are interwoven and therefore have a family feeling for each other: one thing follows another in due order through the tension of movement, the common spirit among them, and unity of all being.

[…]

Loss is nothing more than change. Universal nature delights in change, and all that flows from nature happens for the good. Similar things have happened from time everlasting, and there will be more such to eternity. So why do you say that everything has always happened for the bad and always will, that all those gods between them have evidently never found any power to right this, so the world is condemned to the grip of perpetual misery?

[…]

Either all things flow from one intelligent source and supervene as in one coordinated body, so the part should not complain at what happens in the interest of the whole—or all is atoms, and nothing more than present stew and future dispersal. Why then are you troubled?

[…]

Whatever happens to you was being prepared for you from everlasting, and the mesh of causes was ever spinning from eternity both from your own existence and the incidence of this particular happening.

[…]

Constantly reflect that all the things which happen now have happened before: reflect too that they will happen again in the future. Have in your mind’s eye whole dramas with similar settings, all that you know of from your own experience or earlier history—for example, the whole ourt of Hadrian, the whole court of Antoninun, the whole court of Philip, Alexander, Croesus. All the same as now: just a different cast.

[…]

All things are short-lived—this is their common lot—but you pursue likes and dislikes as if all was fixed for eternity. In a little while you too will close your eyes, and soon there will be others mourning the man who buries you.

[…]

…our successors will see nothing new, just as our predecessors saw nothing more than we do: such is the sameness of things, a man of forty with any understanding whatsoever has in a sense seen all the past and all the future.

[…]

When you are high in indignation and perhaps losing patience, remember that human life is a mere fragment of time and shortly we are all in our graves.

[…]

Epictetus used to say that when you kiss your child you should say to yourself: ‘Tomorrow you may be dead.’ But these are ominous words! ‘No,’ he replies, ‘nothing is ominous which points to a natural process. Otherwise it would be ominous to speak of the corn being reaped.’

[…]

Any one individual activity which comes to an end at the appropriate time suffers no harm from its cessation: nor has the agent suffered any harm simply because this particular action has ceased. In the same way, then, if the total of all his actions which constitutes a man’s life comes to an end at the appropriate time, it suffers no harm from the mere fact of cessation: nor is the agent who brings this series of actions to a timely end exposed to any harm. The time and the term are assigned by nature—sometimes man’s own nature, as in old age, but in any case by the nature of the Whole, which through the constant changing of its constituent parts keeps the whole world ever young and fresh.

[…]

Continually review in your mind those whom a particular anger took to extremes, those who reached the greatest heights of glory or disaster or enmity or any other sort of fortune. Then stop and think: where is it all now? Smoke and ashes, a story told or even a story forgotten.

Playing the cards that you are dealt

Wherever it is in agreement with nature, the ruling power within us takes a flexible approach to circumstances, always adapting itself easily to both practicality and the given event. It has no favoured material for its work, but sets out on its objects in a conditional way, turning any obstacle into material for its own use. It is like a fire mastering whatever falls into it. a small flame would be extinguished, but a bright fire rapidly claims as its own all that is heaped on it, devours it all, and leaps up yet higher in consequence.

[…]

‘It is my bad luck that this has happened to me.’ No, you should rather say: ‘It is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without pain, neither crushed by the present nor fearful of the future.’ Because such a thing could have happened to any man, but not every man could have borne it without pain. So why see more misfortune in the event than good fortune in your ability to bear it? Or in general would you call anything a misfortune for a man which is not a deviation from man’s nature?

[…]

…display those virtues which are wholly in your own power—integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity. Do you not see how many virtues you can already display without any excuse of lack of talent or aptitude? And yet you are still content to lag behind. Or does the fact that you have no inborn talent oblige you to grumble, to scrimp, to blame your poor body, to suck up, to brag, to have your mind in such turmoil? No, by heaven, it does not!

[…]

[Unsophisticated people] say: ‘Fate brought this on him.’ Now if ‘brought,’ also ‘prescribed’. So let us accept these prescriptions just as we accept those of Asclepius—many of them too are harsh, but we welcome them in the hope of health.

[…]

So there are two reasons why you should be content with your experience. One is that this has happened to you, was prescribed for you, and is related to you, a thread of destiny spun for you from the first by the most ancient causes. The second is that what comes to each individual is a determining part of the welfare, the perfection, and indeed the very coherence of that which governs the Whole. Because the complete Whole is maimed if you sever even the tiniest fraction of its connection and continuity: this is true of its constitute parts, and true likewise of its causes. And you do sever something, to the extent that you can, whenever you fret at your lot: this is, in a sense, a destruction.

[…]

The mind adapts and turns round any obstacle to action to serve its objective: a hindrance to a given work is turned to its furtherance, an obstacle in a given path becomes an advance.

[…]

Love only what falls your way and is fated for you. What could suit you more than that?

Suicide

But if you feel yourself falling away and losing control, retire in good heart to some corner where you will regain control—or else make a complete exit from life, not in anger, but simply, freely, with integrity, making this leaving of it at least one achievement in your life.

Acting in the present

No, you do not have thousands of years to live. Urgency is on you. While you live, while you can, become good.

[…]

I always take the present moment as raw material for the exercise of rational and social virtue—in short, for the art of man or god.’ Because a god or a man can assimilate anything that happens: it will not be new or hard to handle, but familiar and easy.

[…]

You must compose your life action by action, and be satisfied if each action achieves its own end as best can be: and no one can prevent you from that achievement. ‘But there will be some external obstacle.’ No obstacle, though, to justice, self-control, and reason. ‘But perhaps some other source of action will be obstructed.’ Well, gladly accept the obstruction as it is, make a judicious change to meet the given circumstance, and another action will immediately substitute and fit into the composition of your life as discussed.

[…]

Live through life in the best way you can. The power to do so is in a man’s own soul, if he is indifferent to things indifferent. And he will be indifferent if he looks at these things both as a whole and analysed into their parts, and remembers that none of them imposes a judgement of itself or forces itself on us.

[…]

You should let nothing stand in your way—not the iniquity of others, not what anyone else thinks or says, still less any sensation of this poor flesh that has accredited round you: the afflicted part must see to its own concern.

Other people

Whenever you meet someone, ask yourself first this immediate question: ‘What beliefs does this person hold about the good and bad in life?’ Because if he believes this or that about pleasure and pain and their constituents, about fame and obscurity, death and life, then I shall not find it surprising or strange if he acts in this or that way, and I shall remember that he has no choice but to act as he does.

[…]

Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. All this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But I have seen that the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil what is wrong; and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own—not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong.

[…]

Men are born for the sake of each other. So either teach or tolerate.

[…]

Presented with the impression that someone has done wrong, how do I know that this was a wrong. And if it was indeed a wrong, how do I know that he was not already condemning himself, which is the equivalent of tearing his own face?

Wanting the bad man not to do wrong is like wanting the fig-tree not to produce rennet in its figs, babies not to cry, horses not to neigh, or any other inevitable face of nature.

Deception

The conscious liar sins to the extent that his deceit causes injustice: the unconscious liar to the extent that he is out of tune with the nature of the Whole and out of order with the nature of the ordered universe against which he fights. And it is fighting when he allows himself to be carried in opposition to the truth. He has received the prompts from nature: by ignoring them he is now incapable of distinguishing false from true.

[…]

…the corruption of the mind is much more a plague than any such contaminating change in the surrounding air we breathe. The latter infects animate creatures in their animate nature: the former infects human beings in their humanity.

Happiness

‘If you want to be happy’, says Democritus, ‘do little.’ May it not be better to do what is necessary, what the reason of a naturally social being demands, and the way reason demands it done? This brings the happiness both of right action and of little action. Most of what we say and do is unnecessary: remove the superfluity, and you will have more time and less bother. So in every case one should prompt oneself: ‘Is this, or is it not, something necessary?’ And the removal of the unnecessary should apply not only to actions but to thoughts also: then no redundant actions either will follow.

[…]

In every contingency keep in your mind’s eye those who had the same experience before, and reacted with vexation, disbelief, or complaint. So where are they now? Nowhere. Well then, do you want to act like them?

[…]

One man prays: ‘How can I sleep with that woman?’ Your prayer is: ‘How can I lose the desire to sleep with her?’ Another prays: ‘How can I be rid of that man?’ You pray: ‘How can I stop wanting to be rid of him?’ Another: ‘How can I save my little child?’ You: ‘How can I learn not to fear his loss?’ And so on. Give all your prayers this turn, and observe what happens.

[…]

…remind yourself also that what has once changed will be no more for the infinity of time. Why then this stress? Why not be content with an orderly passage through the brief span you have?

[…]

When you fret at any circumstance, you have forgotten a number of things. You have forgotten that all comes about in accordance with the nature of the Whole; that any wrong done lies with the other; further, that everything which happens was always so in the past, will be the same again in the future, and is happening now across the world; that a human being has close kindship with the whole human race—not a bond of blood or seed, but a community of mind. And you have forgotten this too, that everyman’s mind is god and has flowed from that source; that nothing is our own property, but even our child, our body, our very soul have come from that source; that all is as thinking makes it so; that each of us lives only the present moment, and the present moment is all we lose.

Politics

What does not benefit the hive does not benefit the bee either.

The good life

If you set yourself to your present ask along the path of true reason, with all determination, vigour, and good will: if you admit no distraction, but keep your own divinity pure and standing strong, as if you had to surrender it right now; if you grapple this to you, expecting nothing, shirking nothing, but self-content with each present action taken in accordance with nature and a heroic truthfulness in all that you say and mean—then you will lead a good life. And nobody is able to stop you.

[…]

How to understand your own good: the lover of glory takes it to be the reactions of others; the lover of pleasure takes it to be his own passive experience; the intelligent man sees it as his own action.

[…]

…a person’s worth is measured by the worth of what he values.

[…]

Do not dream of possession of what you do not have: rather reflect on the greatest blessings in what you do have, and on their account remind yourself how much they would have been missed if they were not there. But at the same time you must be careful not to let your pleasure in their habituate you to dependency, to avoid distress if they are sometimes absent.

[…]

You know from experience that in all your wanderings you have nowhere found the good life—not in logic, not in wealth, not in glory, not in indulgence: nowhere. Where then is it to be found? In doing what man’s nature requires. And how is he to do this? By having principles to govern his impulses and actions. What are these principles? Those of good and evil—the belief that nothing is good for a human being which does not make him just, self-controlled, brave, and free: and nothing evil which does not make him the opposite of these.

[…]

Always have clear in your mind that ‘the grass is not greener’ elsewhere, and how everything is the same here as on the top of a mountain, or on the sea-shore, or wherever you will.

[…]

The model for the application of your principles is the boxer rather than the gladiator. The gladiator puts down or takes up the sword he uses, but the boxer always has his hands and needs only to clench them into fists.

Pursuing fame, pleasures, luxuries, or gratitude

On who is all in a flutter over his subsequent fame fails to imagine that all those who remember him will very soon be dead—and he too. Then the same will be true of all successors, until the whole memory of him will be extinguished in a sequence of lamps lit and snuffed out. But suppose immortality in those who will remember you, and everlasting memory. Even so, what is that to you? And I do not simply mean that this is nothing to the dead, but to the living also what is the point of praise, other than for some practical aspect of management?

[…]

It is ridiculous not to escape from one’s own vices, which is possible, while trying to escape the vices of others, which is impossible.

[…]

Vanity is the greatest seducer of reason: when you are most convinced your work is important, that is when you are most under its spell.

[…]

Disgraceful if, in this life where your body does not fail, your soul should fail you first.

[…]

How many who once rose to fame are now consigned to oblivion: and how many who sang their fame are long disappeared.

[…]

When you have done good and another has benefited, why do you still look, as fools do, for a third thing besides—credit for good works, or a return?”

[…]

Above all, when you complain of disloyalty or ingratitude, turn inwards on yourself. The fault is clearly your own, if you trusted that a man of that character would keep his trust, or if you conferred a favour without making it an end in itself, your very action its own and complete reward. What more do you want, man, from a kind act? Is it not enough that you have done something consonant with your own nature—do you now put a price on it? As if the eye demanded a return for seeing, or the feet for walking. Just as these were made for a particular purpose, and fulfill their proper nature by acting in accordance with their own constitution, so man was made to do good: and whenever he does something good or otherwise contributory to the common interest, he has done what he was designed for, and inherits his own.

How to live

The universal cause is a torrent, sweeping everything in its stream. So, man, what does that mean for you? Do what nature requires at this moment. Start straight away, if that is in your power: don’t look over your shoulder to see if people will know. Don’t hope for Plato’s utopian republic, but be content with the smallest step forward, and regard even that result as no mean achievement.

[…]

The time you have left is short. Live it as if you were on a mountain. Here or there makes no difference, if wherever you live you take the world as your city. Let men see, let them observe a true man living in accordance with nature. If they cannot bear him, let them kill him—a better fate than a life like theirs.

With this book I felt like I was reading secret knowledge that I shouldn’t have been allowed to access, even though it’s freely available for sale to the public. If this isn’t secret knowledge, I could believe that Aurelius was told the mysteries of nature and humanity by a spiritual being. While this may sound crazy, it does seem that he was able to see through the code of the universe to understand both the role and flow of our lives. Until we’re all swept away in life’s wind, he advises us to be a right man through right actions and thought while resisting base pleasures and calls for glory, comfort, and luxury. Meditations is not easy reading, but it’s the most effective manual for living that I’ve ever encountered.

If you are familiar with Eastern philosophy, nothing that Aurelius preaches should be new or conflicting for you. There is such an overlap between stoicism and Buddhism that I’m certain Buddhist ideas made its way to the West by the time of Christ. They both share the idea that anything which happens to the individual is required by nature’s whole. If you consider that your very existence depended on all historical events of the past, both good and evil, including that which has happened within the universe before Earth’s formation, there is no need to interpret future events that happen to you as good or bad, but merely as what nature requires to fulfill its cycle based on the unknown rules that govern it. This includes your own death.

One complaint I have is that Aurelius seems to be proto-Christian by adopting passivity when it comes to fighting enemies. While I don’t interpret Aurelius as someone who took abuse and always turned the other cheek, I could see a monk using Aurelius’ teachings to justify an existence where he is trampled on by those stronger than he. Then again, it is in my nature to fight back against those who harm me, and doing so doesn’t directly conflict with Aurelius’ teachings. I wonder if merely whatever action you instinctively respond with to an acute event is indeed part of your nature, and for you that is the correct response. Hopefully your nature is good.

Overall this is perhaps the most important book I’ve ever read, and it came to me at exactly the right time, for if I read it three years ago it wouldn’t have impacted me as much as it has now. While I’m not sure if Meditations will impact you in the same way, I highly recommend the book to all men who have previously found stoic or Buddhist thought to be helpful in their lives.

Read More: “Meditations” on Amazon

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