The collection of short sayings titled Meditations comes from the personal journals of Marcus Aurelius over the years (161–180 C.E.) that he was Roman Emperor. Meditations isn’t a formal philosophical treatise; it’s a series of brief mental exercises designed to help Marcus think and act well—in other words, to live a good life according to the Stoic philosophy he favored. (Stoicism taught that human beings should always try to act reasonably and in harmony with nature. Since actions proceed from thoughts, training the mind was believed to help a person regulate their actions.) Through scattered sayings, it’s possible to gather Marcus’s outlook on the meaning of life. Marcus argues that life’s purpose is simply to live well according to one’s divine, or reason-directed, nature. In order to achieve this, one should train the mind to react reasonably—and ideally, virtuously—to all external circumstances.
From Marcus’s perspective, the point of life is to live well. For him, this means using one’s short life to live as the gods intend: “At some point you have to recognize […] from what [divine] source you spring; that there is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don't use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.” Basically, a person is divinely created; life is short, so there is only a short time in which to train one’s mind to live in accordance with one’s god-given nature.
Given that human life is brief, ever-changing, and unpredictable, what should people look to for guidance? Philosophy, Marcus asserts: “Which means making sure that the power within stays safe and free from assault […] not dependent on anyone else's doing something or not doing it. […] And above all, that it accepts death in a cheerful spirit[.]” One’s mind, in other words, does not have to be controlled by external circumstances, and one should learn to accept both the duration of their life and all that fills their life, whether good or bad.
According to Marcus, a person can live well by training their mind. Marcus’s Stoic outlook holds that thoughts lead to actions: “The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.” What the mind dwells on thoroughly shapes a person’s soul and thus their actions. Therefore, one’s reactions to the world are governed by one’s mind: “Nothing that goes on in anyone else's mind can harm you. […] Then where is harm to be found? In your capacity to see it. Stop doing that and everything will be fine. Let the part of you that makes that judgment keep quiet[.]” If a person controls their mind’s reactions to things, then a person can’t ultimately be hurt by what’s happening in someone else’s mind or by any other external circumstance.
Marcus goes on to suggest that because a person can control their own mind, they can, to a certain extent, be free from external circumstances. Attending to one’s own mind enables a person to be content regardless of their circumstances. “If you can privilege your own mind […] that should keep you clear of dramatics, of wailing and gnashing of teeth. You won't need solitude—or a cast of thousands, either,” Marcus says. In other words, if one has learned to understand and control one’s mind so that it isn’t shaken by circumstances, a person doesn’t have to retreat from society or be surrounded by peers in order to live well.
No matter what happens, there is no reason that external circumstances should prevent a person from acting virtuously—demonstrating qualities like self-control, generosity, justice, and humility. Marcus writes, “So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.” No matter what happens to a person, it’s still within their power to act virtuously, and even if something bad happens, the so-called misfortune can be turned to one’s advantage if they use the obstacle as an opportunity to cultivate the mind.
Though Marcus’s meditations are succinct, the sheer number of them—and the frequent repetition of many precepts—suggests that even if life’s purpose is straightforward, that doesn’t mean it’s simple. Training the mind is a constant battle, in his view, and something that’s only accomplished through dedicated practice.
Philosophy, The Mind, and Living Well ThemeTracker
Philosophy, The Mind, and Living Well Quotes in Meditations
l. 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. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.
The body and its parts are a river, the soul a dream and mist, life is warfare and a journey far from home, lasting reputation is oblivion.
Then what can guide us?
Only philosophy. Which means making sure that the power within stays safe and free from assault […] And making sure that it accepts what happens and what it is dealt as coming from the same place it came from. And above all, that it accepts death in a cheerful spirit, as nothing but the dissolution of the elements from which each living thing is composed. If it doesn't hurt the individual elements to change continually into one another, why are people afraid of all of them changing and separating? It's a natural thing. And nothing natural is evil.
Hippocrates cured many illnesses—and then fell ill and died. The Chaldaeans predicted the deaths of many others; in due course their own hour arrived. […] Heraclitus often told us the world would end in fire. But it was moisture that carried him off; he died smeared with cowshit. Democritus was killed by ordinary vermin, Socrates by the human kind.
You boarded, you set sail, you've made the passage. Time to disembark. If it's for another life, well, there's nowhere without gods on that side either. If to nothingness, then you no longer have to put up with pain and pleasure, or go on dancing attendance on this battered crate, your body—so much inferior to that which serves it. One is mind and spirit, the other earth and garbage.
13. Doctors keep their scalpels and other instruments handy, for emergencies. Keep your philosophy ready too—ready to understand heaven and earth. In everything you do, even the smallest thing, remember the chain that links them. Nothing earthly succeeds by ignoring heaven, nothing heavenly by ignoring the earth.
39. Nothing that goes on in anyone else's mind can harm you. Nor can the shifts and changes in the world around you.
—Then where is harm to be found?
In your capacity to see it. Stop doing that and everything will be fine. Let the part of you that makes that judgment keep quiet even if the body it's attached to is stabbed or burnt, or stinking with pus, or consumed by cancer. Or to put it another way: It needs to realize that what happens to everyone—bad and good alike—is neither good nor bad. That what happens in every life—lived naturally or not—is neither natural nor unnatural.
l. 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—the things I was brought into the 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? Don't you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you're not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren't you running to do what your nature demands?
27. "To live with the gods." And to do that is to show them that your soul accepts what it is given and does what the spirit requires—the spirit God gave each of us to lead and guide us, a fragment of himself. Which is our mind, our logos.
29. You can live here as you expect to live there.
And if they won't let you, you can depart life now and forfeit nothing. If the smoke makes me cough, I can leave. What's so hard about that?
Until things reach that point, I'm free. No one can keep me from doing what I want. And I want what is proper to rational beings, living together.
12. If you had a stepmother and a real mother, you would pay your respects to your stepmother, yes…but it's your real mother you'd go home to.
The court... and philosophy: Keep returning to it, to rest in its embrace. It's all that makes the court—and you—endurable.
50. Do your best to convince them. But act on your own, if justice requires it. If met with force, then fall back on acceptance and peaceability. Use the setback to practice other virtues.
Remember that our efforts are subject to circumstances; you weren't aiming to do the impossible.
22. To feel affection for people even when they make mistakes is uniquely human. You can do it, if you simply recognize: that they're human too, that they act out of ignorance, against their will, and that you'll both be dead before long. And, above all, that they haven’t really hurt you. They haven't diminished your ability to choose.
3. Alexander and Caesar and Pompey. Compared with Diogenes, Heraclitus, Socrates? The philosophers knew the what, the why, the how. Their minds were their own.
The others? Nothing but anxiety and enslavement.
35. We have various abilities, present in all rational creatures as in the nature of rationality itself. And this is one of them. Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it—turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself—so, too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal.
36. Don't let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don't try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, "Why is this so unbearable? Why can't I endure it?" You'll be embarrassed to answer.
Then remind yourself that past and future have no power over you. Only the present—and even that can be minimized. Just mark off its limits. And if your mind tries to claim that it can't hold out against that. . . well, then, heap shame upon it.
23. You participate in a society by your existence. Then participate in its life through your actions—all your actions. Any action not directed toward a social end (directly or indirectly) is a disturbance to your life, an obstacle to wholeness, a source of dissension. Like the man in the Assembly—a faction to himself, always out of step with the majority.
29. The design of the world is like a flood, sweeping all before it. The foolishness of them—little men busy with affairs of state, with philosophy—[…]
Do what nature demands. Get a move on—if you have it in you—and don't worry whether anyone will give you credit for it. And don't go expecting Plato's Republic; be satisfied with even the smallest progress, and treat the outcome of it all as unimportant.
A healthy sense of hearing or smell should be prepared for any sound or scent; a healthy stomach should have the same reaction to all foods, as a mill to what it grinds.
So too a healthy mind should be prepared for anything. The one that keeps saying "Are my children all right?" or "Everyone must approve of me" is like eyes that can only stand pale colors, or teeth that can handle only mush.
15. The despicable phoniness of people who say, "Listen, I'm going to level with you here.” What does that mean? It shouldn't even need to be said. It should be obvious—written in block letters on your forehead. It should be audible in your voice, visible in your eyes, like a lover who looks into your face and takes in the whole story at a glance. A straightforward, honest person should be like someone who stinks: when you're in the same room with him, you know it. But false straightforwardness is like a knife in the back.
36. You've lived as a citizen in a great city. Five years or a hundred—what's the difference? […]
And to be sent away from it, not by a tyrant or a dishonest judge, but by Nature, who first invited you in—why is that so terrible?
[…] This will be a drama in three acts, the length fixed by the power that directed your creation, and now directs your dissolution. Neither was yours to determine.
So make your exit with grace—the same grace shown to you.