• Alex Vikner

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius: Stoic Insights From a Roman Emperor

In his personal writings, i.e. Meditations, Marcus Aurelius lays out his philosophy through a series of practical reflections. These are the insights that I found the most thought-provoking.

Life is Short, Don't Waste it

  • Imagine you were now dead, or had not lived before this moment. Now view the rest of your life as a bonus, and live it as nature directs. Perform each action as if it were your last.

  • You may leave this life at any moment. Have this possibility in your mind in all that you do or say or think. Urgency is on you. While you live, while you can, become good.

  • No one loses any life other than the one he lives, or lives any life other than the one he loses.Nothing is more miserable than one who is always out and about, running round everything in circles.

  • Keep constantly in your mind an impression of the whole of time and the whole of existence - and the thought that each individual thing is, on the scale of existence, a mere fig-seed; on the scale of time, one turn of a drill.

  • Do not waste the remaining part of your life in thoughts about other people. Think of the whole of existence, of which you are the tiniest part. Soon you will have forgotten all things: soon all things will have forgotten you.

  • Perfection of character is this: to live each day as if it were your last, without frenzy, without apathy, without pretence.

Live in Accordance With Nature

  • Being conscious of the brevity of life and living it in tune with nature relieves you of the burden of wider, and by implication futile, ambition.

  • Caring for all men is in accordance with man's nature: but that nevertheless he should not hold to the opinions of all, but only of those who live their lives in agreement with nature.

  • The man without one and the same aim in life cannot himself stay one and the same throughout his life. It follows that the aim we should set ourselves is a social aim, the benefit of our fellow citizens. A man directing all his own impulses to this end will be consistent in all his actions, and therefore the same man throughout.

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

  • What does not benefit the hive does not benefit the bee either. Have I done something for the common good? Then I too have benefited.

  • If each thing experiences what is usual and natural for it, why would you complain? Universal nature has brought nothing you can't endure.

  • For a rational being, to act in accordance with nature is also to act in accordance with reason.

  • If you set yourself to your present task 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.

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

  • Consider anything that is humanly possible and appropriate to lie within your own reach too.

  • Nature gives all and takes all back. Existence is a 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.

  • Generally wherever you look you will find the same things.

Focus on What You Can Control

  • It is not their actions which trouble us but our judgements of them. And how to remove them? By reflecting that no moral harm is caused you.

  • Do not waste your time and energy on things outside of your control. The closer to control of emotion, the closer to power.

  • Anger is as much a sign of weakness as is pain. The greater grief comes from the consequent anger and pain, rather than the original causes of our anger and pain.

  • All is as thinking makes it so. Your mind will take on the character of your most frequent thoughts: souls are dyed by thoughts. Similarly, a person's worth is measured by the worth of what he values.

  • Things cannot touch the mind: they are external and inert; anxieties can only come from your internal judgement. Mere things, brute facts, should not provoke your rage: they have no mind to care.

  • I have often wondered how it is that everyone loves himself more than anyone else, but rates his own judgement of himself below that of others.

  • The universe is change, life is judgement. Remove the judgement, and you have removed the thought 'I am hurt': remove the thought 'I am hurt', and the hurt itself is removed.

  • Objects of the senses—especially those which allure us with pleasure, frighten us with pain, or enjoy the applause of vanity—are cheap, contemptible and perishable.

  • Change: nothing inherently bad in the process, nothing inherently good in the result.

  • Adopt a systematic study of the way all things change into one another and meditate often on the connection of all things in the universe and their relationship to each other.

  • In writing and reading you must learn before you can teach. Yet more so in life.

Simplicity is Key to Happiness

  • If you want to be happy, do little. Do not trouble yourself, keep yourself simple. Always remember that the happy life depends on very little.

  • You will gain great ease of mind from not looking at what your neighbour has said or done or thought, but only at your own actions, to make them just, reverential, and imbued with good.

  • Most of what we say and do is unnecessary: remove the superfluidity, and you will have more time and less bother.

  • Always look at the bright side of life. '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.

  • 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.

How to Lead a Good Life

  • The defining characteristic of the good person is to love and embrace whatever happens to him along his thread of fate.

  • Train yourself to think only those thoughts such that in answer to the sudden question 'What in your mind right now?' you could say with immediate frankness whatever it is.

  • Display these virtues which are wholly in your own power: integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, and magnanimity. You ought to be one of those who are unconscious of the good they do.

  • Accustom yourself not to be disregarding of what someone else has to say.

  • Keep yourself simple, good, pure, serious, unpretentious, a friend of justice, god-fearing, kind, full of attention, strong for your proper work.

  • Kindness is invincible - if it is sincere, not fawning or pretence.

  • Always make a definition or sketch of what presents itself to your mind, so you can see it stripped bare to its essential nature and identify it clearly. When things have such a plausible appearance, show them naked. See things for what they really are.

  • Always have clear in your mind that the grass is not greener elsewhere.

  • Do not give up in disgust or impatience if you do not find action on the right principles consolidated into a habit in all that you do. No: if you have taken a fall, come back again, and be glad if most of your actions are on the right side of humanity.

  • Practice even what you have despaired of mastering.

  • If someone can prove me wrong and show me my mistake in any thought or action, I shall gladly change. I seek the truth, which never harmed anyone: the harm is to persist in one's own self-deception and ignorance.

  • Philosophy is the medecine of the soul. No retreat offers someone more quiet and relaxation than that into his own mind.

  • No more roundabout discussion of what makes a good man. Be one!