Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor who historians consider to be the last of the so-called Five Good Emperors, after whom the empire suffered decline and chaos under a succession of weak, corrupt, or insane rulers. Most people may better remember him as the kindly old emperor from the film Gladiator.
Among philosophers and intellectuals, however, he is known as one of the wisest and most influential thinkers of his time, a man whose works still bear relevance today. Aurelius was an adherent and proponent of Stoicism, a philosophical school of thought that, among other things, emphasized self-control, clear-thinking, and living a virtuous life.
His greatest contribution to this line of thinking, if not philosophy in general, was a collection of personal writings known as the Meditations, which were written during a decade of military campaigning between the years 170 and 180 – a surprising context given the subject matter.
First written in Greek, it was originally intended for Aurelius’s own guidance and self-improvement – which he no doubt needed plenty, given that he was leading a war. In fact, his own title for the works was To Myself, which suggests that it was never intended to be published (though no one knows for sure). Meditations was thus one of several titles assigned to this compilation, though now it’s the most common. It’s unknown when it was first disseminated and how much circulation it received, as it was first published in the 16th century, based on a manuscript that is not lost to history (the only copy of it is in the Vatican Library).
Given its personal nature, Meditations has a unique but nonetheless digestible style. It consists mostly of quotations varying in length from one sentence to several. It’s divided into 12 chapters that chronicle different periods of his life, albeit without any chronological order, though it’s not as confusing as you may think. In fact, the writing is plain, simple, and straightforward; depending on the translation, it doesn’t even read like you’d expect it to, given his intellect and royalty. For a philosophical text, it’s quite relatable to the average person.
As for the subject matter, it mostly discusses the notions of service and duty, and describes how one can maintain serenity in the midst of conflict (internal or external) by following nature as a source of guidance. His ideas may remind readers of Buddhism.
For starters, Marcus advised against sensory indulgence, and claimed that avoiding them will liberate the individual from the pains and pleasures of the material world. He asserts that the only way a man can be harmed by others is to allow his reactions to take control of him. He speaks of an order to the universe, called logos, which can be transcended to through rationality and clear-mindedness, allowing one to rise above what he considers to be simplistic perceptions of “good” and “bad.”
What does he mean? Well, the most central principle of Meditations, and by extension Stoicism as Marcus sees it, is to analyze your judgment of yourself and others and seek to develop a cosmic perspective. As he explains:
You have the power to strip away many superfluous troubles located wholly in your judgment, and to possess a large room for yourself embracing in thought the whole cosmos, to consider everlasting time, to think of the rapid change in the parts of each thing, of how short it is from birth until dissolution, and how the void before birth and that after dissolution are equally infinite.
At several points during his work, he makes this argument that each individual is part a greater cosmic structure, leading some to conclude that Marcus is advocating for a collectivist and worldly approach rather than an individualistic one. Essentially, he’s advocating that you find your own place in the universe and observe the bigger picture.
There is more to this existence than you, or than plain ideas like good or bad. You must connect the larger, deterministic world around you, for which you have no control over but through your reactions to it. Everything came from nature, and so everything will eventually return to it. The best you can do in the meantime is to make the most of your life through discipline and virtue; to remain focused on your goals, avoid distractions (both within and without), and maintain strong ethical principles such as “being a good [person]” – hence that famous quote I posted in the beginning.
Needless to say, this advice is applicable to just about any area of life, from politics to business. What Marcus discusses is relevant to every human being who has ever lived – in everything we do, we must find peace with ourselves and the world around. It is no wonder that Meditations remains a revered literary masterpiece, considered a favorite of such diverse figures as Frederick the Great, John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold, Goethe, Wen Jiabao, and former president Bill Clinton (who no doubt should have followed its advice better). John Steinbeck, one of my favorite authors, even alluded to it several times in his magnum opus, East of Eden.
Like all philosophical works, Meditations isn’t without shortcomings or criticisms. For many people, Stoic philosophy in general is considered too staid, with too much opposition to sensory experience. People will always debate what great thinkers actually meant in their works, or interpret their writings differently. Personally, I see it as a more balanced work, much like Buddhism’s admonishment not against material goods per se, but on the excess attachment to such things. Though I’m inspired by stoicism and the Meditations, I also adhere to tenets ofHedonism (greatly misunderstood) and Epicureanism, taking the best from which and I applying them as I see best.
If you’re a philosopher, or someone who’s otherwise read and studied this work, please share your own thoughts and reactions. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly encourage you to do so. At the very least, it’s a thought-provoking experience.
Below are some of my favorite quotations from the Meditations:
- If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this that disturbs thee, but thy own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now.
- A cucumber is bitter. Throw it away. There are briars in the road. Turn aside from them. This is enough. Do not add, “And why were such things made in the world?”
- Soon you’ll be ashes or bones. A mere name at most—and even that is just a sound, an echo. The things we want in life are empty, stale, trivial.
- Never regard something as doing you good if it makes you betray a trust or lose your sense of shame or makes you show hatred, suspicion, ill-will or hypocrisy or a desire for things best done behind closed doors.
- Whatever happens to you has been waiting to happen since the beginning of time. The twining strands of fate wove both of them together: your own existence and the things that happen to you.
- 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 you’ve embarked on.
- Let opinion be taken away, and no man will think himself wronged. If no man shall think himself wronged, then is there no more any such thing as wrong.
- As for others whose lives are not so ordered, he reminds himself constantly of the characters they exhibit daily and nightly at home and abroad, and of the sort of society they frequent; and the approval of such men, who do not even stand well in their own eyes has no value for him.
- Shame on the soul, to falter on the road of life while the body still perseveres.
- Take away your opinion, and there is taken away the complaint, […] Take away the complaint, […] and the hurt is gone
- Do not act as if thou wert going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over thee. While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good.
- Words that everyone once used are now obsolete, and so are the men whose names were once on everyone’s lips: Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Dentatus, and to a lesser degree Scipio and Cato, and yes, even Augustus, Hadrian, and Antoninus are less spoken of now than they were in their own days. For all things fade away, become the stuff of legend, and are soon buried in oblivion. Mind you, this is true only for those who blazed once like bright stars in the firmament, but for the rest, as soon as a few clods of earth cover their corpses, they are ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ In the end, what would you gain from everlasting remembrance? Absolutely nothing. So what is left worth living for? This alone: justice in thought, goodness in action, speech that cannot deceive, and a disposition glad of whatever comes, welcoming it as necessary, as familiar, as flowing from the same source and fountain as yourself.
- Do not then consider life a thing of any value. For look at the immensity of time behind thee, and to the time which is before thee, another boundless space. In this infinity then what is the difference between him who lives three days and him who lives three generations?
- When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine.