As a collection of Marcus Aurelius’s philosophical reflections, Meditations doesn’t have a coherent plot structure, but each of its 12 books focuses on several recurrent themes—living a philosophical life, social relationships, nature and the gods, and mortality.
In Book 1, Marcus Aurelius expresses his thanks to various influences in his life, like his family, his predecessor and adoptive father Antoninus Pius, and even the gods for imparting virtuous lessons and setting him on the path of philosophy.
In Book 2, Marcus reflects on the difficulties of dealing with unpleasant people. It’s important to remember that all people share in a divinely given, rational nature (the logos) and to refrain from getting angry at others. In fact, belief in divine Providence should shape one’s life in every way, reminding them that every individual is part of a greater whole, thereby helping them reject bitterness and live with gratitude. Getting distracted by lesser things, like what’s going on in other people’s minds, only leads to unhappiness. Because life is so brief and subject to change, only philosophy can help a person control their thoughts, accept life, act justly, and die well.
Book 3: The most important strategy for a person’s soul, Marcus says, is to break down and rationally analyze everything that happens—to understand the true nature of things and events. To this end, a person should keep their philosophy handy, just as a doctor keeps his tools nearby in case of emergency.
Book 4: A person’s most important refuge is within the self. According to Marcus, if you choose not to be harmed by something that happens to you, you won’t be harmed by it, because the mind can’t be hurt by anything outside of it. In life, there’s no such thing as “fortunate” or “unfortunate”—it’s all in how people interpret what happens to them.
Book 5: A person’s most important work is “being human,” experiencing things and practicing virtues in response. Even when you encounter obstacles, as in dealing with difficult people, you can adapt to them, work around them, and develop obstacles into opportunities for the soul’s betterment.
Book 6: Nature, inhabited by the divine logos, governs everything in harmony. Life may seem random, but that’s no cause for anxiety. No matter what, everything will be absorbed back into the logos, and in the meantime, one’s job remains the same: have a goal and live in harmony with nature as one pursues that goal.
Book 7: Each individual is part of a larger whole and should strive to get along well with others. Marcus stresses that we’re all human, we’ll soon die, and we can afford to show each other compassion. In any case, another person’s actions can’t stop you from practicing virtues. Your soul’s well-being is in your own hands.
Book 8: Marcus advises to stay humble—you haven’t fully attained a philosophical life. Don’t complain or blame others. Just focus on building your own life out of the materials you’ve been given, one action at a time, and keeping your attention fixed on the present. Posthumous fame is a pointless goal.
Book 9: Injustice, lying, and other misdeeds mock the gods, because we’re designed to work together—all rational beings who share in the logos. Everything we do should ultimately be directed toward society’s benefit, since individual good isn’t distinct from that. Do the best you can, even if you fall short of your ideals and other people don’t appreciate you.
Book 10: Be satisfied with what you have, be unselfish, and set practical goals. Accept whatever happens, remembering that life is a training-ground for one’s logos. A healthy mind isn’t enslaved by worry or the need for others’ approval.
Book 11: From Marcus’s perspective, the soul is responsible for making something of itself and accepting the inevitability of death calmly. Everyone has the potential to do this, and nobody else can prevent them from it. At the same time, developing good judgment and treating others justly takes a lifetime of practice.
Book 12: A philosophical life is always attainable, but people get in their own way. The only solution is to forget the past, trust God for the future, and practice virtue. Don’t be troubled by other people’s opinions, which can’t affect you, or their misbehavior, which is a result of their ignorance. Your own reactions are the only thing within your control. It’s a privilege to have lived in a great city, and death is no disgrace. The length of one’s life and the timing of one’s exit are the gods’ doing. It’s Marcus’s place to exit life gracefully.