MARCUS AURELIUS: Meditations [Books I-IV]

Book I

      • From his grandfather Verus, Marcus learned good morals and to govern his passions.
      • From the man who raised him – modesty and manly character
      • From his mother – piety and beneficence, abstinence from evil deeds and thoughts, and a simple life.
      • From his great grandfather – to spend liberally on a good education.
      • From his governor – to not become a fan of athletes, to work diligently, to want little, to work with his own hands, to not meddle in other person’s affairs, and not to be ready to listen to slander.
      • From Diognetus – not to care about trifles, not to heed miracle-workers and liars that claim they can cast out demons, not to breed and cultivate birds for sport, not to take offense at insults, and to pursue philosophy.
      • Rusticus – one’s character ought to be improved and disciplined, pursue philosophy without ostentation, forgiveness, avoid reading texts superficially, and he introduced Marcus to the writings of Epictetus.
      • Apollonius – freedom of will and steadiness of purpose, always look only to reason, accept pains and hardships with the same grace as favors.
      • Sextus – live in accordance with nature, be serious without affectation, tolerate ignorance and difference of opinion, be dispassionate.
      • Alexander the Grammarian – do not reproach men for incorrect use of words, but gently correct them.
      • Fronto – tyrants are envious, duplicitous, and hypocrites; the nobles are devoid of affection
      • Alexander the Platonic – do not frequently use the excuse that you have more important matters to attend to
      • Catulus – heed a friend’s criticism though it be erroneous and try to restore them to their former disposition, speak well of teachers, and love your children
      • His brother Severus – love one’s kin, truth, and justice; learned the ideas of equal rights and justice for all; be consistent in one’s regard for philosophy; be generous; be sincere
      • Maximus – always be cheerful, even in adversity and illness; do what has been set forth before you without complaint; be good, forgiving, honest, and amiable.
      • His father – diligence, dispassion, deliberate carefully, be always cheerful, be above flattery, be attentive to financial matters, be sociable, be philosophical, take care of one’s health, do not be concerned with external beauty, do not be concerned with glory, be moderate in pleasures.
      • The gods – a good family, the ability to avoid offending the gods, ability to enjoy a simple life, healthy children, preventing him from becoming too enamored with poetry and rhetoric, ability to help others, and avoidance of sophists.

“Read carefully, and do not be satisfied with a superficial understanding of a book.”

“He was able both to abstain from, and to enjoy, those things which many are too weak to abstain from, and cannot enjoy without excess. But to be strong enough both to bear the one and to be sober in the other is the mark of a man who has a perfect and invincible soul.”

Book 1 of Meditations is composed of Marcus’ thoughts of gratitude. He is grateful for the friends, family, and gods who helped him to become the man he is today. It seems that nearly all of the good qualities that Marcus possesses are derived from the instruction given to him by someone in his life. I think that gratitude is a good thing to express, but Marcus seems to want to disclaim all responsibility for his good character, and assert that his character is entirely formed by the actions of others.

There are a few major qualities that Marcus reiterates throughout the first book. Among these are: diligence, resolution, perseverance, and cheerfulness. Of all the characteristics discussed in the first book, I believe that these are some of the most important to remember. Marcus writes that one ought to carefully deliberate a course of action according to reason, not passion; and then perform the task one sets before oneself with diligence and without complaint. Whenever one determines to do something, one should do it, and persevere until it is done.

Furthermore, one ought to always be cheerful. Though this seems, at first, to contradict his advice to be dispassionate, there is a distinction that can be made between cheer and passion. Passion is an extreme emotion that is uncontrollable. Cheerfulness is a moderate and controlled type of happiness, acceptance, and joy. Marcus asserts that we can choose to be cheerful in any type of situation, even in adversity, if we are aware that it must be so because of the dictates of reason.

Marcus also praises the disposition to never be content with a superficial understanding. One ought to strive to attain a thorough understanding of things. This maxim is applicable to this reading project. For example, in the beginning of this year, I read the Iliad by Homer. I was not content with a superficial understanding of the narrative. I sought themes within the narrative itself. I read criticisms and watched videos on youtube to understand the culture of the ancient Greeks, and to learn why the characters in the Iliad behaved a certain way. This additional research, though time-consuming, provides a much richer experience and understanding of the text.

Book II

      • Evil men are evil because they are ignorant of good and evil. The natures of the good men and the evil men are the same. They participate in the same intelligence and divinity. We are made to act in cooperation with one another. To act against one another is contrary to nature; and to be vexed by someone and turn away is to act contrary to nature.
      • Man is a little flesh and breath, and the ruling part. Act as if you are dying [because you are dying]. Despise the flesh; it is mere blood and bones. Despise breath; it is air. Do not let your ruling part be ruled and “pulled by strings like a puppet to unsocial movements.”  Be satisfied with your present fortune, and do not shrink from the future.
      • Everything is the way it is according to providence and necessity. Cast away your books so that you do not die complaining, but cheerfully and grateful to the gods.
      • A limit of time is fixed for you. Use this time to clear the clouds from your mind while you can because the time will leave and never return.
      • Do everything with dignity, and feelings of justice, freedom, and affection. Cast away carelessness, passion, hypocrisy, self-love, and discontent.
      • Well-being depends only on one’s own soul, not those of others.
      • Do not let external things that befall distract you. Learn some new and good thing. One ought to have a purpose to direct one’s labors.
      • Those who do not observe the minds of other men are seldom unhappy; but those who do not observe their own minds must of necessity be unhappy.
      • One ought to always contemplate the nature of the whole, the nature of one’s own self, and the relation between the two. There is nothing that hinders one from acting according to the nature of the whole, which is reason.
      • Offences that are committed because of desire are more blameworthy than offences that are committed because of anger. An angry person turns away from reason unconsciously because of pain. A person who is overpowered by pleasure turns away from reason by his own impulse, not because of some wrong suffered.
      •   Act and think as if you may depart this life at any moment because it is possible. One ought not to fear death because if there are gods, they will not allow men to fall into evil. If there are no gods, or the gods do not care for humans, then death is no matter. That which does not make a man worse cannot make a man’s life worse. Life and death, honor and dishonor, pain and pleasure, happen to both good and bad men. Therefore, they are neither good nor evil because they make men neither better nor worse.
      • Bodies and the remembrance of them disappear quickly. It is our part to observe the worthless, contemptible, and transitory nature of all things that attract with the lure of pleasure and terrify by pain. Death is merely an operation of nature not to be feared.
      • It is sufficient to merely attend the spirit within one’s own self, and to revere the spirit by keeping it pure from thoughtlessness and discontent.
      • The longest and shortest lives are brought to the same end. Men only possess the present moment; for the past is gone and the future is not his yet.
      • Everything is opinion.
      • To be vexed is a separation of ourselves from nature. The soul does violence to itself when it turns away from other men or moves towards them with the intention of doing violence. The soul does violence to itself when it is overpowered by pain or pleasure; when it does anything insincerely and untruly; when it allows any act or movement to be without an aim. The aim of every act and movement should be in accordance with reason and justice.
      • Philosophy is the only thing that can conduct men in a world where everything that belongs to the body is as a stream, and everything that belongs to the soul is a dream and vapor. Philosophy consists in keeping the spirit within man “free from violence and unharmed, superior to pains and pleasures, doing nothing without a purpose, accepting all that happens as coming from whence he himself came, and cheerfully awaiting death because death is merely the dissolution of elements.” The elements continually change, combine, and dissolve according to nature. Nothing is evil which is according to nature.

“Whatever this is that I am, it is a little flesh and breath, and the ruling part. Throw away thy books; no longer distract thyself.”

“Do every act of your life as if it were the last.”

“Since it is possible that thou mayest depart from life this very moment, regulate every act and thought accordingly.”

Marcus’ philosophy borders on pessimism, but he finds a reason to hope and to live. He writes that every man’s body, and the remembrance of every man, will eventually be obscured and lost in time. What, therefore, can conduct a man through this existence? Marcus answers that only philosophy can provide direction in a man’s life. This philosophy must be in accordance with nature; and nature dictates that men ought to act with in accordance with reason and justice, and also to assume a cheerful disposition to everything which befalls him, whether pleasurable or painful.

This is an interesting argument: life and death, honor and dishonor, pain and pleasure happen to both good and bad men. Therefore, these things are neither good nor evil because they do not make a man better or worse. An evil thing is something that makes a man worse. There seems to be some slippery logic implied in this argument, but after careful consideration, I think that the argument is tenable. Let’s consider the statement, “pain is an evil.” One could argue that pain turns good people into bad people. For example, the pain of hunger and thirst can motivate some good individuals to steal bread and water. However, Marcus would argue that the truly good man would not steal, regardless of the adverse circumstances. The good man would always do what is right, what is just, and what is in accordance with reason. If one attempts to refute this by arguing that the dictates of reason and justice call for the hungry man to steal, then he has defeated himself; for one implies that the man is good because he is behaving according to reason and justice, and that the pain of hunger and thirst has not made the man a worse man. In any case, every judgment about the goodness or badness of a man will depend upon the determination of whether the man acted according to reason and justice. In some scenarios, it is very easy to determine the morality of a particular action; in others, a particular action may be subject to a wide variety of contrary moral judgments.

Book III

      • We must make haste in our endeavors because not only do we have a smaller part of life left after every succeeding second, but we also lose the ability to reason and fulfill our duties as we age.
      • There is a certain beauty in everything.
      • Many famous and powerful men have passed. We all have embarked on a journey, and will come to shore. When we leave our ship, we may enter another world. But if we enter into a senseless state, then we will cease to be held by pains and pleasures, to be a slave to the desires of the body, which is inferior to the spirit which it serves; for the body is earth and corruption, and the spirit is intelligence and deity.
      • Do not waste thoughts about what others are doing, saying, thinking, contriving, etc. one ought to observe one’s own spirit and thoughts. One ought to think about things that, if he were asked what he is thinking, he would not be ashamed to disclose. One ought to think about simple and benevolent things. One ought to cheerfully accept his lot in life, and not be overpowered by passion, pain, or pleasure. Every man is akin to one another, and it is according to nature to care for all men. Men ought to value the opinions of men who live according to nature. Men ought not to value the praises of men who live impure lives because they are not even satisfied with themselves.
      • Be cheerful and independent.
      • Marcus implies that there is nothing better than justice, truth, temperance, fortitude, and the deity of reason that inhabits us. If one inclines to something else, then one will be distracted when one tries to prefer the virtues of reason. It is not right to incline to anything other than what is rationally good. One ought to incline to the goods of the intellect – the divine part of man – not to the pleasures of the body and to glory.
      • One ought to never value anything that will compel one to lie, hate, or act contrary to reason and virtue. One who prefers and worships his own intelligence never plays a tragic part, and lives without pursuing or flying from death.
      • There is no corrupt matter in the mind of one who is pure. His life is complete whenever fate takes him.
      • Revere the faculty which produces opinion because this faculty produces opinions in accordance with nature, which is what is most desirable.
      • A man’s life is short, and so is the longest posthumous fame. This fame is continued by successions of posterity who die and do not know even themselves, much less him who died long ago.
      • It is conducive to the elevation of the mind to contemplate the nature of every object which is presented to one’s own self, and the relation of the object to the whole of the universe. Everything is in accordance with destiny.
      • If one keeps one’s divine part pure as if one is bound to give it away soon, if one expects nothing, if one fears nothing, if one is satisfied with one’s current activity according to nature and with heroic truth in every utterance, then one will be happy; and nothing can prevent such an one from being happy.
      • One ought to always have principles ready for the understanding of things human and divine. One ought to do everything with a recollection of the bond between the human and divine.
      • Sensations belong to the body, appetites belong to the soul, principles belong to the intelligence.
      • Sensations, desires, and intelligence belong to all men. But only good men are content with what happens, and with the thread which is spun for them. They preserve the purity of the spirit within them.

“Every rational animal is his kinsman, and that to care for all men is according to man’s nature.”

“A man must stand erect, not be kept erect by others.”

“Short then is the time which every man lives, and small the nook of the earth where he lives; and short too the longest posthumous fame, and even this only continued by a succession of poor human beings, who will very soon die, and who know not even themselves, much less him who died long ago.”

“If thou workest at that which is before thee, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract thee, but keeping thy divine part pure, as if thou shouldst be bound to give it back immediately; if thou holdest to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with thy present activity according to nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which thou utterest, thou wilt live happy. And there is no man who is able to prevent this.”

In the third book, Marcus exhorts us not to waste what little life remains on thoughts about what others might be thinking, doing, saying, contriving, etc. The requirements for happiness lie solely within ourselves. We simply need to accept with cheerfulness what happens, to expect nothing, to fear nothing, and be satisfied by the contemplation of Truth.

I consider this to be an explicit prohibition of Facebook, Twitter, and all social media. The main reason why people use social media is not to publicize their own activities and thoughts, but to learn about what others have been doing, thinking, saying, etc. I have read articles which have cited studies that show a strong correlation between depressed moods and the amount of time spent on social media websites viewing other people’s profiles. Perhaps the people are already depressed and are attempting to cope through use of social media, but I don’t think that it is too farfetched to conclude that viewing the successes of others [because people do not often post their failures and shortcomings on the internet] causes many to become depressed.

Another interesting notion in the third book is the transitory nature of life, and what we ought to do given this fact. Marcus draws attention to the fact that even the greatest of men have died, and that their fame is short-lived. Although we still read about the exploits of Caesar and Alexander the Great, we do not know them, much less ourselves. Furthermore, their fame is not beneficial to them because they are dead. Knowing this, what should a man do? A man ought to direct every thought and action in accordance with nature, justice, truth, temperance, fortitude, virtue, and reason because this alone leads to happiness.

Book IV

      • When the intellect acts according to the principles of nature, it has a respect for what happens, and easily adapts to everything.
      • Every act ought to be done with a purpose in accordance with nature.
      • It is within one’s power to retire into one’s own self. A man finds no greater quiet or freedom from trouble than in his own soul, especially when his soul contains thoughts conducive to tranquility. Rational animals exist for one another. To endure is a part of justice. Men do wrong involuntarily. Either there is Providence or Chance. The world is a political community. The mind does not mingle with the breath. Everything is soon forgotten. Applause is empty. There is a chaos of infinite time on either side of the present moment. The earth is a small point. Things do not touch the soul; our vexations only come from within, from the opinion we hold of external things. All things change and cease to be.
      • The reason which guides men’s actions is common to all rational animals. Thus, the world is one political community under the sway of one common law of reason.
      • Man ought to not be ashamed of death because death is natural.
      • Bear in mind that you and all the other men will soon be dead; and not even your names will be left behind.
      • Take away your opinion, and then your complaint is taken away, and then your harm is taken away.
      • Everything that happens is just.
      • Only do what the ruling and legislating faculty suggests. Change your opinion if anyone sets you right and moves you from any opinion. This change must be made only because it is proven just or for the common advantage, not because it is pleasant or brings fame.
      • One cannot wish for more than for one’s reason to perform its duty.
      • One will appear to be a god if one worships and adheres to reason.
      • You will not live forever. While it is within your power, be good.
      • One avoids much trouble when one does not heed the actions and sayings of other men, but is only concerned with the actions and thoughts of one’s own self. Look not at the depravity of others, be good.
      • One ought to not desire posthumous fame because fame is nothing. It has not utility to the dead.
      • A beautiful thing is beautiful in itself, not because it is praised. Therefore, praise makes a thing neither better nor worse. Is a beautiful painting worse because it is not praised? No.
      • On the occasion of every impression/sensation, maintain the faculty of comprehension.
      • All things are from nature, in nature, and shall return to nature.
      • One ought to ask whether an action or thought is necessary. One ought to discard unnecessary acts and thoughts, and perform and think about only what is necessary according to nature, the nature of a rational animal.
      • The good man is satisfied with his own portion of the whole, and is satisfied with his own just acts and benevolent disposition.
      • Everything which has happened and will happen has been weaved from the beginning.
      • Can order exist in a part of the universe – man – and not the universe as a whole?
      • All things useful for life are found within one’s own self. One who is discontent with what happens is an abscess on the universe.
      • The lives of people in times of Vespasian, Trajan, Homer, Virgil, and Shakespeare no longer exist. Their great efforts have failed and are resolved into the elements.
      • All things pass away and are buried by oblivion. Even if eternal remembrance existed, it means nothing. Thus, we ought to only employ ourselves in just acts and adopt a benevolent disposition which cheerfully accepts all that happens as necessary and flowing from the principles of nature.
      • All things take place by change. Everything changes and ceases to be. Everything is the seed of something else.
      • Wisdom is merely acting justly.
      • Evil does not subsist in the ruling principle of another or the change of one’s body; it resides in one’s own faculty of forming opinions. One ought to refrain from forming opinions that something is evil, and then all will be well. For example, if one suffers bodily injury and pain, one ought to reason that pain happens to both good and bad men; and thus pain is not capable of making a man worse, and is not an evil.
      • The universe is one living being having one substance and one soul.
      • Man is a little soul bearing about a corpse.
      • Change is not evil. To subsist in consequence of change is not good.
      • Always observe how ephemeral and worthless human things are. Pass then through this little space of time conformably to nature, and end your journey in content.
      • Always apply this principle in times of adversity: this is not a misfortune, this is an opportunity to bear it nobly, which is good fortune.
      • Life is a thing of no value when one considers its short duration, the troubles of life, the sort of people one is acquainted with, and the feebleness of the body that one possesses. There is no difference between the man who lives for three days and the man who lives for three generations. Consider the infinity of time before and after your life.

“It is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere, either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble, does a man retire than into his own soul, particularly when he has within him such thoughts that by looking into them he is immediately in perfect tranquility.”

“See how soon everything is forgotten, and look at the chaos of infinite time on each side of [the present], and the emptiness of applause, and the changeableness and want of judgment in those who pretend to give praise, and the narrowness of the space within which it is circumscribed [and be quiet at last]. For the whole earth is a point, and how small a nook in it is this thy dwelling, and how few are there in it, and what kind of people are they who will praise thee.”

“The universe is transformation; life is opinion.”

“Within ten days thou wilt seem a god to those to whom thou art now a beast and an ape, if thou wilt return to thy principles and to worship of reason.”

“Do not act as if thou wert going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over thee. While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good.”

“All things soon pass away and become a mere tale, and complete oblivion soon buries them.”

“Thou art a little soul bearing about a corpse.”

“Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.”

“Look to the immensity of time behind thee, and to the time which is before thee, another boundless space. In this infinity then what is the difference between him who lives three days and him who lives three generations?”

In the fourth book, Marcus discusses the ephemeral and worthless nature of all human things. He once again alludes to the transitory and vain attempts of men to gain fame. Like all other things in the universe, time will obscure fame in oblivion. Therefore, man ought to act justly and in accordance with the principles of nature and cheerfully accept what happens.

Marcus asserts that a man ought to act justly without adducing any type of support other than reason dictates it to be so. One who desired to contradict Marcus would have no trouble. One simply could repeat that everything is subject to change and will be forgotten; and therefore, one ought to behave unjustly because reason dictates it to be so. Marcus does not explain why or how reason dictates one to behave justly. Furthermore, the notion of justice is subject to different interpretations. As seen in Sophocles’ Antigone, there were two concepts of justice in tension with one another. Creon believed that it was just not to bury the brother who attacked Thebes, while Antigone believed that it was just.

Another interesting notion in the fourth book is that man is little soul bearing about a corpse. The imagery and feelings evoked by this description are startling. Marcus seems obsessed with the notion of death. As T.S. Eliot said about Webster, he is a man who “saw the skull beneath the skin.” Though the thought of the ephemeral nature of life can liberate one of certain cares for truly unnecessary things, it can also lead to a profound feeling of pessimism and futility if one cannot reconcile the emptiness and worthlessness of this bodily life with a higher purpose found within one’s own self, the connection between one’s self and the divine whole.


20 thoughts on “MARCUS AURELIUS: Meditations [Books I-IV]”

  1. After a recent review of his list of those who influenced his education. I could not help but think he was the founder of the concept of graduate outcomes.

      1. The following article: Marshall, S. J., Orrell, J., Cameron, A., Bosanquet, A., & Thomas, S. (2011). Leading and managing learning and teaching in higher education. Higher Education Research & Development, 30(2), 87-103. Available here on graduate outcomes and their alignment is an interesting read. I know Agnes one of the authors. Her comment is that graduate outcomes are interesting when you read them as you can often date when they are written by the things they emphasise. Her comment is that graduate outcomes should be less fickle, and provide more than a transitory trend. I think we see this sort of solidity in many of Marcus Aurelius’ points.

  2. This is a great read – but I’ll admit I haven’t gotten from cover to cover yet. I’d recommend reading some extended history to serve as a backdrop before diving into the philosophical material. I always found that the history could be skimmed through once to get a setting, while this type of reading should be read daily.

    1. I completely agree. I generally read a brief biography of each writer, and also acquaint myself with the culture and time period during which the author wrote.

      Thanks for stopping by my blog!

    1. I must admit that I very often wonder whether Marcus would have been able to maintain his Stoic philosophy in the face of extreme pain or adversity. After all, he was a Roman emperor. His life certainly was not as difficult as the other Stoic philosopher, Epictetus.

  3. your blog is a complete inspiration, Great Books, and I can’t wait to probe other renderings, as I’ve done here by checking out your “MARCUS AURELIUS: Meditations [Books I-IV]” first before your MARCUS AURELIUS: Meditations [Books V-VIII]”, which I’ve only just now received in my hotmail since beginning to follow you on this thrilling journey

    but, Great Books, respectfully, I have a beef, an indication of direct quotations would be of service, as it is, your presentation seems to suggest that all of your text is an interpretation, with bullet points and some considered evaluations, instead of actual quotations, what’s up, and could you help

    meanwhile, I’m addicted



    1. Thanks for the comment Richard!

      The bullet points contain a concise summary of the reading selection. Immediately after the bullet points are quotations from the actual text. I am currently in the process of placing quotations around all of these – the quotations in the posts for year 2 of the reading plan are all complete. Immediately after the quotations are my thoughts upon the reading selection – i.e. whether I agree or disagree with an argument, any similarities I find between books that I have read in the past and the current book, analysis of major themes, etc.

      I am delighted to have you on board this journey. Talk to you soon!

  4. Thanks for making this post! I have to read this for my political philosophy class and was having a lot of trouble interpreting the material before i read this.

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