The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius written around 2000 years ago, remains one of the great works of spiritual and ethical reflection. It is perhaps the only document of its kind ever made, the private thoughts of the world’s most powerful man. With a profound understanding of human behaviour, Marcus provides insights, wisdom, and practical guidance on everything from living in the world to coping with adversity to interacting with others.
If we seek Plato’s philosopher-king in the flesh, we cannot help but think of Marcus Aurelius, the ruler of the Roman Empire for almost two decades. Yet the title is one that Marcus himself would surely have rejected.
The Meditations can be best seen as “spiritual exercises” written as reflections against the stress and confusion of everyday life, a sort of self-help book. Marcus used philosophy as a soothing ointment.
He had clearly no expectation that anyone but himself would ever read his Meditations. It seems unlikely that he gave the work a title at all. He wrote the Meditations from 170 to 180 A.D, before his death at the age of 58. It had been a particularly dark and stressful period for him. His last years were spent in “warfare and a journey far from home” – Meditations 2.17
After his death, he was succeeded by his son Commodus. Sadly, he turned out to be a dissolute tyrant whose defects were only emphasised by the contrast with his father.
During this era, philosophy was not just a subject to write and argue about, but one that was expected to provide a “design for living” – a set of rules to live one’s life by.
One of the philosophies that particularly inspired Marcus was Stoicism, which is the main source of the key terms and concepts that appear in the Meditations.
Today Marcus Aurelius is considered as the quintessential Stoic. However, if one would’ve asked Marcus what he studied, his answer would have not been “Stoicism” but simply “philosophy”. While the Meditations is built on a Stoic foundation, it also refers to a wide range of figures, such as Socrates, Heraclitus and even the rival school of Epicureanism. Truth was valued over who said what.
One of the central doctrines of the Stoic worldview is that the world is organised in a rational and coherent way. It is controlled by an all-pervading force that the Stoics called “logos” – which is a force similar to the Tao for the Taoists.
Logos designates rational and connected thought. It exists in individuals as the faculty of reason and on the cosmos as the rational principle that governs the organisation of the universe. Thus, rationality and clear-mindedness allow one to live in harmony with the logos.
All events are determined by the logos and follow in an unbreakable chain of cause and effect, which makes it a deterministic system that leaves little room for free will. Although the Stoics believed free will to be a voluntary accommodation to what is in any case inevitable.
Of the major philosophical schools, it was Stoicism that had the greatest appeal. It had always approved of participation in public life, and this stand struck a chord with the Roman aristocracy. Early Stoicism was a holistic system, aiming to embrace all knowledge. Roman Stoicism, by contrast, was a practical discipline – an attitude to life.
In the Meditations, Marcus tries to answer questions such as: How should we live our lives? How can we ensure that we do what is right? And how should we deal with pain and misfortune?
To answer these questions, one must turn to the doctrine of the three “disciplines” of Stoicism which are very present in the Meditations.
The first one is the discipline of perception. It requires that we maintain absolute objectivity of thought. It is not objects and events but the interpretations we place on them that are the problem. Our duty is to exercise control over the faculty of perception, with the aim of protecting our mind from error.
The second one is the discipline of action. It relates to our relationship with other human beings. Marcus frequently repeats that we were made not for ourselves but for others, our nature is fundamentally unselfish. However, our duty to act justly does not mean that we must treat others as our equals; it means that we must treat them as they deserve.
And the third one is the discipline of will. While the discipline of action governs our approach to the things in our control, those that we do; the discipline of will governs our attitude to things that are not within our control, those that we have done to us (by others or by nature).
If we act wrongly, we have done serious harm to ourselves (not to others or to the logos). Therefore, we must see things for what they are, this applies to all obstacles and apparent misfortunes, and in particular death.
The Meditations is divided into 12 short books written over Marcus’s last decade. In Book 1, Marcus plays tribute to his older relatives, to his teachers, to his adopted father, and ultimately to the gods. The rest of the books are not organised in a chronological manner and go over the same ideas. Scores of entries begin with to “remember” or “keep in mind”.
There is a note of melancholy that runs throughout the work that’s very moving. As the most powerful man, he might also have felt like the loneliest man in the world, it seemed that he had nobody to talk to but himself.
In a number of entries we find a kind of internal debate in which the questions or objections of an imaginary interlocutor are answers by a second, calmer voice, which corrects or rebukes its errors. The first voice seems to represent Marcus’s weaker, human side; the second is the voice of philosophy.
There are various central themes that recur throughout the book.
1. Perceptions of Good and Bad
“You take things you don’t control and define them as “good” or “bad”. And so of course when “bad” things happen, or the “good” ones don’t, you blame the gods and feel hatred for the people responsible.” – Meditations 6.41
“Death and life, success and failure, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty, all these happen to good and bad alike, and they are neither noble nor shameful – and hence neither good nor bad.” – Meditations 2.11
2. Constant change
It is from Heraclitus that Marcus derives one of his most memorable motifs, that of the unstable flux of time and matter in which we move:
“Time is a river, a violent current of events, glimpsed once and already carried past us, and another follows and is gone.” – Meditations 4.43
“Everything’s destiny is to change, to be transformed, to perish. So that new things can be born.” – Meditations 12.21
Death is not to be feared as it is a natural process. The Stoics practiced memento mori, meditating on your mortality.
“Suppose that a god announced that you were going to die tomorrow “or the day after.” Unless you were a complete coward you wouldn’t kick up a fuss about which day it was – what difference could it make? Now recognise that the difference between years from now and tomorrow is just as small.” – Meditations 4.47
“Constantly run down the list of those who felt intense anger at something: the most famous, the most unfortunate, the most hated, the most whatever. And ask: Where is all that now? Smoke, dust, legend… or not even a legend […] And how trivial the things we want so passionately are.” – Meditations 12.27
4. Living according to Nature
Marcus insists that we always follow Nature, as it is good and rational – driven by logos. Since we are all interconnected, man is good by nature and nothing natural is evil.
“What injures the hive injures the bee.” – Meditations 6.54
When a man does wrong to another man, they are hurting themselves.
Our duty is to make people realise where they went wrong, without losing our temper, and not seeking credit in return.
“What defines a human being – is to work with others.” – Meditations 8.12
5. Stoicism and Epicureanism
Marcus compares the dichotomy of Stoicism and Epicureanism stating: “Providence or atoms” – Meditations 4.3
Atoms refer to the Epicurean universe founded on “mixture, interaction, dispersal”, while Providence refers to the Stoic system of “unity, order, design”. – Meditations 6.10
Marcus believed (like all Stoics) that our reason could be used to understand the universal reason present in nature (logos). He suggests avoiding random and disconnected actions.
“You need to avoid certain things in your train of thought: everything random, everything irrelevant […] so that if someone says, “What are you thinking about?” you can respond at once (and truthfully) that you are thinking this or that.” – Meditations 3.4
7. The Power of our Mind
We can choose how we perceive events and we can always choose to be virtuous. If we practice, we can erase any bad impressions from our mind, as we are completely in control of our thoughts and actions.
“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the colour of your thoughts” – Meditations 5.16
“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.” – Meditations 5.20
“To live a good life: We have the potential for it. If we can learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference. – Meditations 11.16
“It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.” – Meditations 12.4
8. Pain and Weakness
At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work – as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for – for the things I was brought in this world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?” – But it’s nicer here… So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them?” – Meditations 5.1
“Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.” – Meditations 7.56
Meditations in 10 Minutes | Marcus Aurelius
The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius remains one of the great works of spiritual and ethical reflection, as well as one of the key works of Stoicism.