Marcus Aurelius: Meditations

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The philosophy of Stoicism was practised by people from all classes of Roman society. From slaves like Epictetus to high ranking advisors such as Seneca. Even an Emperor of the Roman Empire itself, Marcus Aurelius, became a Stoic and towards the end of his life, wrote one of the greatest works of philosophy - a series of private notes and ideas now commonly known as Meditations.

Think of your many years of procrastination; how the gods have repeatedly granted you further periods of grace, of which you have taken no advantage. It is time now to realise the nature of the universe to which we belong, and of that controlling power whose offspring you are; and to understand that your time has a limit set to it. Use it, then, to advance your enlightenment; which will be gone, and never in your power again.

- Book 2, Passage 4

It is important to remember that time is your most precious resource. You have lived a certain amount of days but the amount of days you have remaining is not guaranteed. Stoicism highlights the limited time we have and how to make the most of it. Seneca wrote an essay called “De Brevitate Vitae” (On the Shortness of Life) claiming many people waste their time on meaningless activities. Here Marcus Aurelius encourages a sense of urgency, reminding himself that he wasn’t meant to procrastinate. Focus on what you want to accomplish and foster patience and diligence to give yourself the best chance to achieve your goals.

Live not as though there were a thousand years ahead of you. Fate is at your elbow; make yourself good while life and power are still yours.

- Book 4, Passage 17

Time is a non-renewable resource. Devoting our time to those we care about, those we love and those in need is one of the greatest gifts we can offer. Your words and deeds have a ripple effect in how they affect the lives of others. You can send out positive effects that benefit them, or negative effects that impact in a harmful way. If you find certain behaviours abhorrent, the best way to show your contempt is to not participate in them.

Do not be distressed, do not despond or give up in despair, if now and again practice falls short of precept.

- Book 5, Passage 9

These are Marcus Aurelius’ words for those of us that are at times unsuccessful in meeting the high standard of virtue and righteousness that he advocates. We will all have dark moments and times where we have not behaved as we should. It is at these points the teachings of Marcus Aurelius are especially important. Your values affect you and your morals and integrity are on display at these points in your life as much as at any other time. As Dwight Moody once said: “Character is what you are in the dark”.

If anyone can show me, and prove to me, that I am wrong in thought or deed, I will gladly change. I seek the truth, which never yet hurt anybody. It is only persistence in self-delusion and ignorance which does harm.

- Book 6, Passage 21

It takes courage to rethink your position but it is the right thing to do if you find yourself defending the undefendable or justifying the unjustifiable. It is important to have an open mind when seeking the truth. Questioning yourself through critical thinking and a healthy amount of scepticism are essential when trying to find the right answers.

Examine your beliefs. Develop an awareness of where they came from and how you formed them. Beliefs that are unexamined are often at the root of our suffering. Anybody or any group of people that do not welcome the questioning of their ideas and evade the answering of questions should be observed carefully, as these behaviours may be being used only to maintain their position.

Whatever the world may say or do, my part is to keep myself good.

- Book 7, Passage 15

The stoic teachings of Marcus Aurelius would have been of particular help for the thousands of men in Roman legions at the time, dealing with life and death situations on a day by day basis. Regardless of what happened around them, whether it’s their friend next to them being killed in battle or dealing with potentially fatal living conditions, stoic philosophy taught them that it is their choice whether to be distracted from their moral duty. They can therefore choose not to let their performance on the battlefield be affected by circumstances outside of their control. Any emotional bother they encounter is simply an indicator of a weakness of their will.

You too can use the gritty determination that stoicism teaches us to live in a calm and rational manner, behaving virtuously regardless of what is going on around you or what is happening to you.

We shrink from change; yet is there anything that can come into being without it?… Could you have a hot bath unless the firewood underwent some change?… Do you not see, then, that change in yourself is of the same order, and no less necessary to nature?

- Book 7, Passage 18

The world we live in is constantly changing. Resisting change is pointless as it comes in many different forms throughout our lives. We meet and lose touch with people. We fall in and out of love. We move on. We fall ill and recover. We age. We develop. This is nature.

Embrace change as a natural phenomenon that we can use to help us create something new. Without change, there is no progress.

Take it that you have died today, and your life’s story is ended; and henceforward regard what further time maybe given you as an uncovenanted surplus, and live it out in harmony with nature.

- Book 7, Passage 56

Marcus Aurelius states that for many people, their greatest fear is that of death. To overcome it, he writes in his meditations advising us that this fear of death is only a product of the mind and the mind can be changed. Death is unavoidable and inevitable and Stoicism teaches us to not worry about what we can’t control. By keeping death in this perspective, it therefore should not be of concern to us despite being prepared for it.

Dig within. There lies the well-spring of good: ever dig, and it will ever flow.

- Book 7, Passage 59

Your mind is a unique gift that you have been given. Here Marcus Aurelius is telling us that there is good in all of us. We can let this goodness “flow” by exploring and cultivating our mind and finding it, for our mind and thoughts are entirely within our control. Looking within ourselves for answers is like digging for treasure; as long as you keep digging in the right places, you will inevitably find it. It will take time and effort but if you are prepared to make those sacrifices, the spring of “goodness” will flow from you and you will be able to spread it around eternally.

Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.

- Book 10, Passage 16

These words from Marcus Aurelius were echoed by Abraham Lincoln when he said: “Actions speak louder than words”.

What we do, rather than what we say, defines us. Far too often we see politicians making promises they have no intention of keeping. Their action (or inaction) is what defines their character. We can talk indefinitely on social media about what we think is right or wrong, but actually living virtuously according to our beliefs takes a lot more effort. Lead by example to try and improve the world — albeit maybe only slightly — by your actions.

The business of a healthy eye is to see everything that is visible, not to demand no colour but green, for that merely marks a disordered vision.

- Book 10, Passage 35

It’s important to see things as they are: to see all things rather than just what we want to see. By viewing the world through rose-tinted glasses and ignoring what we may think is unpleasant, we run the risk of being delusional and suffering needlessly as a result. As the philosopher Ayn Rand once said: “He is free to make the wrong choice, but not free to succeed with it. He is free to evade reality, he is free to unfocus his mind and stumble blindly down any road he pleases, but not free to avoid the abyss he refuses to see.”

Have I done an unselfish thing? Well then, I have my reward. Keep this thought ever present, and persevere.

- Book 11, Passage 4

Stoics are not driven by their ego and Marcus Aurelius was no exception. While advocating looking within and focusing on yourself may sound like a selfish act, it is in fact quite different. Aurelius’ advice is to curb our impulses and quench our personal desires. This way we can better serve our fellow man and live a good, virtuous life. There is no need to publicise a noble act to raise any perception of self-importance. A stoic is aware of the shortness of their life and their insignificance in the wider scheme of things.

To expect bad men never to do bad things is insensate; it is hoping for the impossible. To tolerate their offences against others, and expect none against yourself, is both irrational and arbitrary.

- Book 11, Passage 18

Anger often stems from our shock and surprise when things don’t turn out the way we expect. Frustration is often a part of modern life. Driving a car in a big city for example is all but guaranteed to involve traffic jams and bad driving. However, some people are still surprised and angry when they experience or witness this themselves. If you take a more pessimistic but rational view and expect to encounter bad driving, you will be less surprised, more accepting of the situation and therefore less angry when it inevitably occurs.

In the management of your principles, take example by the pugilist, not the swordsman. One puts down his blade and has to pick it up again; the other is never without his hand, and so needs only to clench it.

- Book 12, Passage 9

Many Stoics advocated not indulging in any sort of excess, but instead to periodically face some sort of discomfort, for example walking without shoes for a day or sleeping on a hard floor. These were not seen as punishments but more as a form of training for your body. For example, fasting for a certain period of time will mean you will be better prepared for a situation in life where you have to go hungry. The aim of facing these sorts of physical discomforts voluntarily, Aurelius states, is so that you will then be less afraid when forced to face them.


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