Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Emperors, wrote one of the final classical books of stoicism. The Greek title, Ta Eis Heauton, simply means “To Himself”. Someone, somewhere, sometime used “Meditations” as the title, and it stuck.
Meditations is essentially a notebook of the Roman Emperor. It is divided in 12 short books that correspond to different periods of his life. The entire work can be read in one weekend.
Despite the translation, I believe that Marcus Aurelius wrote a simple prose, neither pompous nor convoluted. He was simply jotting down thoughts about the principles for a good and virtuous life, as he reflected on his experiences.
Several themes recur throughout the book, as is natural when attempting to distill truth from contemplating life. Here are some:
- Maintain a cheerful or undisturbed disposition under ill-health, affronts, or misfortunes
- Think carefully and identify what is and what is not under our control; focus our attention and action on what we can control
- Be observant when approaching situations: understand cause, matter, purpose, and duration before disappearance
- Realize that our life span is an instant and our land a speck in the infinity of time and the vastness of the universe; no one will remember you (“All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain“)
- Don’t fear or resist death; “Pass on your way, then, with a smiling face, under the smile of him who bids you go.”
Note of caution
Choose a good translation. A clean, simple, and unpretentious translation. My edition is from Folio Society, my publisher of choice (they make the most beautiful books). However, their translation was not the friendliest: there were passages where I thought I was reading a legal contract.
Choose a good translationChoose a good translation
- Note 7
- Note 11
- Note 14. “I remember, too, his forthrightness…”
- 15. Cheerfulness under ill-health or other misfortunes
- 16. Of Antoninus Pius. “What is recorded of Socrates was no less applicable to him, that he had the ability to allow or deny himself indulgences which most people are as much incapacitated by their weakness from refusing as by their excesses from appreciating.”
- 17. Career development. “They [the gods] saw to it that at the first opportunity I raised my tutors to such rank and station as I thought they had at heart, instead of putting them off with prospects of later advancement on the plea of their youth.”
- 17. “Finally, that with all my addiction to philosophy I was yet preserved from either falling a prey to some sophist or spending all my time at a desk poring over textbooks and rules of logic or grinding at natural science. For all these good things ‘man needs the help of Heaven and Destiny’.”
- 2. “A little flesh, a little breath, and a reason to rule all – that is myself.
- 4. On procrastination.
- 5. “Hour by hour resolve firmly […] to do what comes to hand with correct and natural dignity, and with humanity, independence, and justice. Allow your mind freedom from all other considerations.”
- 11. “Nothing is more melancholy than to compass the whole creation, ‘probing into the deeps of earth’ as the poet says, and peering curiously into the secrets of others’ souls, without once understanding that to hold fast to the divine spirit within, and serve it loyally, is all that is needful. Such service involves keeping it pure from passion, and from aimlessness, and from discontent with the works of gods or men; for the former of these works deserve our reverence, for their excellence; the latter our goodwill, for fraternity’s sake, and at times perhaps our pity too, because of men’s ignorance of good and evil.”
- 14. “… when the longest- and the shortest-lived of us come to die, their loss is precisely equal. For the sole thing of which any man can be deprived is the present; since this is all he owns, and nobody can lose what is not his.”
- 16. Some principles.
- 12. “At two points hold yourself always in readiness: first, to do exclusively what reason, our king and lawgiver, shall suggest for the common weal; and secondly, to reconsider a decision if anyone present should correct you and convince you of an error of judgement. But such conviction must proceed from the assurance that justice, or the common good, or some other such interest will be served. This must be the sole consideration; not the likelihood of pleasure or popularity.”
- 19. On vanity.
- 20. Bullet and Midnight: “Anything in any way beautiful derives its beauty from itself, and asks nothing beyond itself. Praise is no part of it, for nothing is made worse or better by praise.”
- 33. “To what, then, must we aspire? This, and this alone: the just thought, the unselfish act, the tongue that utters no falsehood, the temper that greets each passing event as something predestined, expected, and emanating from the one source and origin.”
- 49. Reminds of what Pedrín told Papapa: “Be like the headland against which the waves break and break: it stands firm, until the tumult around it subsides. By no means say, ‘How unlucky I am that this should’ve happened to me!’ Rather say, ‘How lucky I am that this has left me with no bitterness; unshaken by the present and undismayed by the future.’ The thing could have happened to anyone, but not everyone would have emerged unembittered.”
- 49 (cont.) “Does this thing which has happened hinder you from being just, magnanimous, temperate, judicious, discreet, truthful, self-respecting, independent, and all else by which a man’s nature comes to its fulfillment? So here is a rule to remember in future, when anything tempts you to feel bitter: not, ‘This is a misfortune’, but ‘To bear this worthily is good fortune’.
- 9. Could be applied to learning pursuits. “In this way your submission to reason will not become a matter for public display, but for private consolation.”
- 12. The vulgar conception of “goods” signifies material things, wealth and possessions that conduce to luxury or prestige. The philosopher’s conception of “goods” refers to such things as prudence, temperance, justice, fortitude.
- 3. “Look beneath the surface: never let a thing’s intrinsic quality or worth escape you.”
- 16. Shokunin.
- 41. “… when we limit our notions of good and evil strictly to what is within our own power, there remains no reason either to bring accusations against God or to set ourselves at variance with men.”
- 12. “To stand up – or be set up?”
- 21. “Soon you will have forgotten the world, and soon the world will have forgotten you.”
- 22. I apply this to Bullet and Midnight as well… “It is man’s peculiar distinction to love even those who err and go astray. Such a love is born as soon as you realize that they are your brothers; that they are stumbling in ignorance, and not willfully; that in a short while both of you will be no more; and, above all, that you yourself have taken no hurt, for your master-reason has not been made a jot worse than it was before.”
- 36. “It is the fate of princes to be ill spoken of for well-doing.” (Antisthenes, frag. 20B).
- 8. “… what you can do is to curb arrogance; what you can do is to rise above pleasures and pains; you can be superior to the lure of popularity; you can keep your temper with the foolish and ungrateful, yes, and even care for them.”
- 30. “Both in the Senate and when addressing individuals, use language that is seemly but not rhetorical. Be sane and wholesome in your speech.”
- “Never confuse yourself by visions of an entire lifetime at once… remember that it is not the weight of the future or the past that is pressing upon you, but ever that of the present alone.”
- 31. “When beset from without by circumstance, be unperturbed; when prompted from within to action, be just and fair…”
- 32. “Many of the anxieties that harass you are superfluous… you can rid yourself of them and expand into an ampler region, letting your thought sweep over the entire universe, contemplating the illimitable tracts of eternity…”
- 40. “… instead of praying to be granted or spared such-and-such a thing, why not rather pray to be delivered from dreading it, or lusting for it, or grieving over it?”
- 8. “If you claim for yourself such epithets as good, modest, truthful, clear-minded, right-minded, high-minded… live up to these designations -though without craving to have them applied to you by others…”
- 29. “Whatever you take in hand, pause at every step to ask yourself, ‘Is it the thought of forfeiting this that makes me dread death?’”
- 15. “How hollow and insincere it sounds when someone says, ‘I am determined to be perfectly straightforward with you.’ Why, man, what is all this? The thing needs no prologue; it will declare itself. It should be written on your forehead, it should echo in the tones of your voice, it should shine out in a moment from your eyes, just as a single glance from the beloved tells all to the lover. Sincerity and goodness ought to have their own unmistakable odour, so that one who encounters this becomes straightway aware of it despite himself. A candour affected is a dagger concealed. The feigned friendship of the wolf is the most contemptible of all, and to be shunned beyond everything. A man who is truly good and sincere and well-meaning will show it by his looks, and no one can fail to see it.”
- 16. “The good life can be achieved to perfection by any soul capable of showing indifference to the things that are themselves indifferent.”
- 18. For tennis: “Anger is as much a mark of weakness as is grief; in both of them men receive a wound, and submit to a defeat.”
- 18. Courage. “To expect bad men never to do bad things is insensate; it is hoping for the impossible. To tolerate their offenses against others, and expect none against yourself, is both irrational and arbitrary.”
- 4. “I often marvel how it is that though each man loves himself beyond all else, he should yet value his own opinion of himself less than that of others.”
- 18. Repeated throughout the book. “Always look at the whole of a thing. Find what it is that makes its impression on you, then open it up and dissect it into cause, matter, purpose, and the length of time before it must end.”
- 26. “… the passing moment is all that a man can ever live or lose.”
- 36. Last: “Pass on your way, then, with a smiling face, under the smile of him who bids you go.”