Meditations is perhaps the only document of its kind ever made. It is the private thoughts of the world’s most powerful man giving advice to himself on how to make good on the responsibilities and obligations of his positions. Trained in Stoic philosophy, Marcus Aurelius stopped almost every night to practice a series of spiritual exercises—reminders designed to make him humble, patient, empathetic, generous, and strong in the face of whatever he was dealing with. It is imminently readable and perfectly accessible. You cannot read this book and not come away with a phrase or a line that will be helpful to you the next time you are in trouble. Read it, it is practical philosophy embodied.
So, who was Marcus? A Roman emperor from 161 to 180 A.D., Marcus practiced Stoicism and wrote about his own Stoic practice in his journals. It is worth remembering that Marcus is one of history’s most exemplary leaders and one worth emulating in our own lives. Matthew Arnold, the essayist, remarked in 1863, that in Marcus we find a man who held the highest and most powerful station in the world—and the universal verdict of the people around him was that he proved himself worthy of it. Machiavelli considers the time of rule under Marcus “golden time” and him the last of the “Five Good Emperors.” Machiavelli would also describe Marcus Aurelius as “unassuming, a lover of justice, hater of cruelty, sympathetic and kind”
Despite his privileges as an Emperor, Marcus Aurelius had a difficult life. The Roman historian Cassius Dio mused that Marcus “did not meet with the good fortune that he deserved, for he was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign.” But throughout these struggles he never gave up. He is an inspiring example for us to think about today if we get tired, frustrated, or have to deal with some crisis.
And during those years of struggle, particularly while he was directing military campaigns, Marcus would write twelve books of his private journals, which is estimated to has been between 170 and 180 A.D. They have become one of the most influential philosophy books in the history of the world. Meditations originally had no title and was written by Marcus Aurelius for his own benefit, not for an audience. And it’s funny to think that his writings may be as special as they are because they were never intended for us to be read. Almost every other piece of literature is a kind of performance—it’s made for the audience. Meditations isn’t. In fact, their original title (Ta eis heauton) roughly translates as To Himself.
It’s for this reason that Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations is a somewhat inscrutable book—it was for personal clarity and not public benefit. Writing down Stoic exercises was and is also a form of practicing them, just as repeating a prayer or hymn might be.
It is a book of short sayings, varying from a sentence or two, to a long paragraph. It’s not organized by theme, but certain ideas keep popping up throughout, indicating that he thought them the most important for him (and therefore us) to understand and incorporate into the way we live.
The fact that Marcus goes to the same themes illustrates how much of Stoicism is essentially journaling and going over the same ideas. You need to constantly remind yourself of the standards you have set for yourself, who you aspire to be, and these are especially important when you come short.
This is a book of actionable advice and its teachings were meant to be practiced and used. When Marcus speaks of the certainty of death and how relatively soon it will come, he is not idly philosophizing. He is recommending that this fact advise our decision-making and how we view the events in our lives. Instead of theorizing about what we should do if either there is a guiding intelligence in the universe, or if everything is just atoms, he prescribes one viewpoint that typically follows Stoic thinking, and explains why both possible truths would lead to the same best actions and beliefs.
The first book of Meditations consists of Marcus thanking the people who had a positive influence on his life, with a focus on those who instilled in him traits characteristic of a good Stoic. These include valuing reason above all else, not being absorbed by petty things, limiting passions and desires, sober decision-making followed by firm commitment to the choice made, honesty and never being secretive, cheerfulness in the face of obstacles, and avoiding superstition and the influence of sophistry. The character traits he lists throughout this first book include many examples worth following and ought to be paid close attention to.
Below are some of the major themes that recur throughout the book. Five of the main themes in this book are: change, death and the shortness of life; the role and importance of the rational mind and will; dealing with others and accepting their shortcomings; avoiding the chase for pleasure and fame; and living according to nature and fully accepting its course.
1. The Evil That Men Do Harms You Only if You Do Evil in Response
Marcus reminded himself to not be upset by the misdeeds of others and to correct them if possible, but if they were stubborn and would not change, to accept it. In reacting to such people, we must never allow our own principles to be violated. Moreover, we should never be surprised by the wicked deeds of others, and avoid wishing that men are not as they are (prone to evil acts) because then we are wishing for the impossible. He believed that people do bad things out of ignorance of what is good and evil, and that we should forgive them for their errors, even when they harm us. Marcus stresses that social animals such as humans are meant to live in harmony.
He likened his relation to bad people to them being different body parts of the same person. Good and bad people are both part of the same universal nature and they are meant to interact and cooperate. Marcus Aurelius—and indeed all the Stoics—believed that we were part of an inner-connected organism. That you couldn’t hurt one person without hurting them all. “What injures the hive, injures the bee,” he said. “The best revenge,” he said, “is not to be like that.” Meaning: When you hurt others, you hurt the group and you hurt yourself.
It is against nature to despise evil people and try to avoid them. When we find ourselves judging others, we ought to consider our own faults first. Then we will find that we are less prone to blaming them. Rather than judge and be disturbed by others, which sets us up for disappointment and distress, we ought to focus on self-improvement. Marcus said,
“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.”
Or as another translation would put it,
“It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own.”
And today, in a hyperconnected, information driven world, compared to Marcus’s time, we also know a lot about other people. We know about the comings and goings of celebrities and politicians. We get real time updates on everything our friends do. We see what they say on social media and we get their texts and photos.
There’s no question that this has increased the amount of so-called drama in our lives. We have opinions on whether so-and-so should have done this and we watch the media chatter about it. We get offended when our friends say this or that. Not a day goes by that we don’t hear gossip or speculation about someone we know.
This is a trap. This is a distraction. Even 2,000 years ago Marcus knew this. “Other people’s mistakes?” he reminded himself, should be left to their makers.
Forget what other people are doing, forget what they’re doing wrong. You’ve got enough on your plate. Focus on yourself—focus on what you might be doing wrong. Fix that. Keep an eye fixed on your own life. There’s no need—and frankly, there’s not enough time—to waste a second spying on other people.
Mind your business.
2. Fame and Desires are Not Worth Pursuing
Marcus repeatedly explains why the pursuit of fame and praise is foolish and why we especially should not care about what others think of us after we die. He points out that so many famous men have been forgotten, that those who would praise one posthumously will themselves soon die. He explains that there are no immortal actions:
“Consider that as the heaps of sand piled on one another hide the former sands, so in life the events which go before are soon covered by those which come after.”
Fame, no matter how great, will always fade into oblivion and pursuit of it merely demonstrates one’s vanity.
He also explains that nothing is made better by praise, the beauty of things comes from the thing itself and not what people say about it. To think then that we are gaining something by being praised is a mistake.
Marcus would say,
“When you’ve done well and another has benefited by it, why like a fool do you look for a third thing on top— credit for the good deed or a favor in return?”
Marcus and the Stoics see doing good as the proper job of a human being. So why on earth do you need thanks or recognition for having done the right thing? It’s your job. Why would you need to be famous? Because you were talented? Because you were brilliant? Because you were successful? These things are part of the job too.
The desire for fame is just one of the pitfalls in life. There are many other desires, all of which can potentially lead us to act immorally. He cites a philosopher, Theophrastus, who claims that bad acts committed because of desires are more blameworthy than evils done out of anger. A person who has been harmed was wronged, whereas the person with strong desires is ignoring the well-being of others because they want something more than they want to be virtuous. Desires can also lead to despair. Marcus addresses this when he talks about prayer, claiming that one should not asks the gods to satisfy a desire or prevent something feared, but ask them if they can remove the desire and be okay with whatever life gives to them.
3. The Universe is Change
Marcus Aurelius’s strongest philosophy comes when he speaks on the eternally changing nature of the universe and the acceptance of death. He reminds us that all of us will die, however, we only ever lose the present moment because that is all we ever have. Nobody “loses more” by dying early. The longest and shortest life will end the same way and be finished for the same eternity.
He also reminds us that we could die at any moment and to live to the fullest while we still can.
“Not to live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you. While you’re alive and able — be good.”
Marcus teaches that we should act quickly to get our affairs in order and take advantage of our fleeting existence and live well. “Thou wilt soon die, and thou art not yet simple, not free from perturbations, nor without suspicion of being hurt by external things, nor kindly disposed towards all; nor dost thou yet place wisdom only in acting justly.”
It is the way of our world that substances should change into new things. The changing of anything into something else is never harmful to the universe, and Marcus applies that lack of harmfulness to every part of the universe, including us. “Nothing is evil which is according to nature,” he asserts.
He even casts our fear of change (including our death) in a somewhat ridiculous light, saying,
“Is any man afraid of change? What can take place without change? What then is more pleasing or more suitable to the universal nature? And canst thou take a bath unless the wood undergoes a change? And canst thou be nourished, unless the food undergoes a change? And can anything else that is useful be accomplished without change?”
4. Problems are Created in the Mind
Being superior to pain and pleasure allows us to fully accept the course of natureand focus on being virtuous. Our perceptions of events as troublesome are the real source of any unhappiness we experience, not the events themselves. Marcus believed that a person could immediately wipe any upsetting impressions from their mind and be at peace. He also recommended remembering the following whenever we experience anxiety:
“Let not future things disturb you, for you will come to them, if it shall be necessary, having with you the same reason which you now use for present things.”
If we don’t let events make us worse people, we are never truly harmed by them. He explains it perfectly when he says,
“Whatever anyone does or says, I must be good, just as if the gold, or the emerald, or the purple were always saying this, whatever anyone does or says, I must be emerald and keep my color.”
Or as he put it in what would become one of the most emblematic quotes from Meditations, “Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been.”
Events can cause people to lose their cool and act immorally, but still they are not harmed by the events, but rather their reaction to them.
And when it comes to problems, we find in Marcus a formula, an art known as turning obstacles upside down. As he would write,
“Our actions may be impeded . . . but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting.”
And then he concluded with powerful words destined for maxim.
“The impediment to action advances action.
What stands in the way becomes the way.”*
To act with “a reverse clause,” so there is always a way out or another route to get to where you need to go. So that setbacks or problems are always expected and never permanent. Making certain that what impedes us can empower us.
Coming from this particular man, these were not idle words. In his own reign of some nineteen years, he would experience nearly constant war, a horrific plague, possible infidelity, an attempt at the throne by one of his closest allies, repeated and arduous travel across the empire—from Asia Minor to Syria, Egypt, Greece, and Austria—a rapidly depleting treasury, an incompetent and greedy stepbrother as co-emperor, and on and on and on.
*This is the quote that inspired the bestselling cult Stoic classic, The Obstacle Is the Way. It shows how some of the most successful people in history—from John D. Rockefeller to Amelia Earhart to Ulysses S. Grant to Steve Jobs—have applied Stoicism to overcome difficult or even impossible situations.
5. Your Rational Mind is Your Greatest Asset
Marcus knew that our ability to reason is what sets us apart from the animals and is an important power that we must use to the fullest. He believed (like all Stoics) that our reason could be used to understand the universal reason present in nature, which would lead to agreement with it even if events seemed harmful. Our rational minds have complete power over our opinions and the mind only experiences suffering when it itself creates a desire for a specific outcome in life.
Marcus—who had more control over his environment than most—was also the pen behind these lines: “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
Marcus teaches that our mind is a thing that controls itself completely and is separated from the world; it cannot be affected by events unless it makes itself be affected. Every appearance is the result of what the mind wills it to appear to be and the mind makes itself exactly what it is. Since this is so, there is no reason we should not agree with nature, since nature has provided us with the means to rationally accept the course of events no matter where they take us.
Three Key Takeaway Lessons from Meditations
- The most important lesson to take away from Meditations is that our minds have great power. We can choose how we perceive events and we can always choose to be virtuous. If we practice, we can instantly erase any bad impressions from our mind. We are completely in control of our thoughts and actions. Remember the two quotes: “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
- People will always do awful (or at least unpleasant) things and we are only responsible our own virtue. We can choose to be good even when we are surrounded by wrong. When another harms us, we can react with kindness, advising them of their errors if possible but being okay with it if they ignore this advice. When another angers us, we must immediately consider their point of view, remember that we have our own faults, and respond with positivity and indifference to any supposed harm done to us.
- The deepest lesson in Meditations relates to our mortality and the shortness of life. We shall soon be replaced, and we ought not waste our lives being distressed. We should focus on doing good for the others with the unknowable amount of time we have left to live. To make this a part of our lives we must reflect regularly on the fact that we will die. This can result in some of the deepest understandings available to humans, therefore death should be confronted no matter how unpleasant it may be to think about. We should reflect on all the people that have come before us, what is left of them now, and what will later be left of us.
10 Best Marcus Aurelius Quotes from Meditations
“If it is not right, do not do it, if it is not true, do not say it.”
“The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
“Your mind will take the shape of what you frequently hold in thought, for the human spirit is colored by such impressions.”
“We all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.”
“Not to feel exasperated, or defeated, or despondent because your days aren’t packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human—however imperfectly—and fully embrace the pursuit that you’ve embarked on.”
“How easy it is to repel and to wipe away every impression which is troublesome or unsuitable, and immediately to be in all tranquility.”
“Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do…Sanity means tying it to your own actions.”
“Discard your misperceptions. Stop being jerked like a puppet. Limit yourself to the present.”
Meditations in Popular Culture
Just as Frederick the Great reportedly rode into battle with the works of the Stoics in his saddlebags, so too did marine and NATO commander General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, who carried Meditations with him on deployments in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Bill Clinton reportedly reads it once a year, and one can imagine him handing a copy to Hillary after her heart-wrenching loss in the US presidential election. Lanterns on the Levee author William Alexander Percy observed in his autobiography that “there is left to each of us, no matter how far defeat pierces, the unassailable wintry kingdom of Marcus Aurelius. . . . It is not outside, but within, and when all is lost, it stands fast.”
Theodore Roosevelt, after his presidency, spent eight months exploring (and nearly dying in) the unknown jungles of the Amazon, and of the eight books he brought on the journey, two were Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and Epictetus’ Enchiridion.Chinese leader Wen Jiabao has re-read the book on countless occasions. Marcus’s writing also makes a prominent appearance in Steinbeck’s East of Eden, in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, and of course many people know Marcus Aurelius from the popular film Gladiator, where he is the old and wise emperor at the beginning of the film played by Richard Harris.