Book Report: Meditation, Marcus Aurelius


I completed my notes on the book. There is a lot to be said; this is a book that will require further thought and reflection. It has also opened the door to Stoicism; something to look at later.

Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus (April 26, 121 – March 17, 180) was Roman Emperor from 161 to his death in 180. He was born Marcus Annius Catilius Severus, and at marriage took the name Marcus Annius Verus. When he was named Emperor, he was given the name Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. He was the last of the so called Five Good Emperors.
While on campaign between 170 and 180, Aurelius wrote his Meditations as a source for his own guidance and self-improvement. His notes were representative of Stoic philosophy and spirituality. 

Stoicism is a school of philosophy founded (308 BCE) in Athens by Zeno of Citium (Cyprus). It teaches self-control and detachment from distracting emotions, sometimes interpreted as an indifference to pleasure or pain. This allows one to be a clear thinker, levelheaded and unbiased. In practice, Stoicism is designed to empower an individual with virtue, wisdom, and integrity of character. Students are encouraged to help those in need, knowing that those who can should. Stoicism also teaches psychological independence from society, regarding it as an unruly and often unreasonable entity [1].

Virtue, reason, and natural law are prime directives. By mastering passions and emotions, it is possible to overcome the discord of the outside world and find peace within oneself. Stoicism holds that passion distorts truth, and that the pursuit of truth is virtuous [1]. The Stoical system of ethics was in the highest sense a system of independent morals. It taught that our reason reveals to us a certain law of nature, and that a desire to conform to this law, irrespectively of all consideration of reward or punishment, of happiness or the reverse, is a possible and a sufficient motive of virtue. It was also in the highest sense a system of discipline. It taught that the will, acting under the complete control of the reason, is the role principle of virtue, and that all the emotional part of our being is of the nature of a disease. Its whole tendency was therefore to dignify and strengthen the will, and to degrade and suppress the desires. It taught, moreover, that man is capable of attaining an extremely high degree of moral excellence, that he has nothing to fear beyond the present life, that it is essential to the dignity and consistence of his character that he should regard death without dismay, and that he has the right to hasten it if he desires [2]. 

Within this short background on stoicism a context can be had for the writings. The translator, Maxwell Staniforth, tacitly cautions the reader not to apply 21st century perspective on 2nd century writings.

There are many interesting points to be drawn from ‘Mediations.’ I have selected those that I found interesting, may be because they have meaning in my current situation.

But there are some other points that can be drawn:

  1. many of the issue and concerns Aurelius discusses remain relevant today
  2. the point of view is not so foreign from today’s thinking and interpretation, regardless of the passage of time and religion
  3. it is interesting to note that a Caesar of the Roman Empire would consider the things he does.

There are various themes and topics discussed in the book, covering: keeping things in perspective; what things are and are not important; the purpose of man and life; human interactions especially in the face of adversity; the dominance [and importance] of Reason; the nature of the universe and man’s role in it; how we should behave, with each other and within ourselves. 

Selected Quotations and Comments (in Italics):

  1. Are you distracted by outward cares? Then allow yourself a space of quiet, wherein you can add to your knowledge of the Good and learn to curb your restlessness. Guard also against another kind of error: the folly of those who weary their days in much business, but lack any aim on which their whole effect, nay, their whole thought, is focused.

    Don’t allow the tactical to overwhelm and cause you to loose sight of the strategic.
  2. When Theophrastus is comparing sins—so far as they are commonly acknowledged to be comparable—he affirms the philosophic truth that sins of desire are more culpable than sins of passion. For passion’s revulsion from reason at least seems to bring with it a certain discomfort, and a half-felt sense of constraint; whereas sins of desire, in which pleasure predominates, indicate a more self-indulgent and womanish disposition.

    Sins of passion vs. sins of desire
  3. If the power of thought is universal among mankind, so likewise is the possession of reason, making us rational creatures. It follows, therefore, that this reason speaks no less universally to us all with its ‘thou shalt’ or ‘thou shalt not’. So then there is a world-law; which in turn means that we are all fellow-citizens and share a common citizenship, and that the world is a single city. Is there any other common citizenship that can be claimed by all humanity?

    This reflects the stoic view that the philosophy extends beyond country or empire borders.
  4. Expressions that were once current have gone out of use nowadays. Names, too, that were formerly household words are virtually archaisms today…. All things fade into the storied past, and in a little while are shrouded in oblivion. Even to men whose lives were a blaze of glory this comes to pass; as for the rest, the breath is hardly out of them before, in Homer’s words, they are ‘lost to sight alike and hearsay’. What, after all, is immortal fame? An empty, hollow thing. 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.

    If in the end it does not matter—there is no prospect of ever lasting fame and fortune—then why waste time striving to gain this; why not focus on the key things, like humanity.
  5. For you, evil comes not from the mind of another; nor yet from any of the phases and changes of your own bodily frame. Then whence? From that part of yourself which acts as your assessor of what is evil. Reuse its assessment, and all is well. Though the poor body, so closely neighbouring it, be gashed or burned, fester or mortify, let the voice of this assessor remain silent; let it pronounce nothing to be bad or good if it can happen to evil men and good men alike—for anything that comes impartially upon men, whether they observe the rules of Nature or not, can neither be hindering her purposes nor advancing them. 
  6. Always think of the universe as one living organism, with a single substance and a single soul; and observe how all things are submitted to the single perceptivity of this one whole, all are moved by its single impulse, and all play their part in the causation of every event that happens. Remark the intricacy of the skein, the complexity of the web.

    Gaia theory?
  7. To be in process of change is not evil, any more than to be the product of change is good.
  8. What follows is ever closely linked to what precedes; it is not a procession of isolated events, merely obeying the laws of sequence, but a rational continuity. Moreover, just as the things already in existence are all harmoniously co-ordinated, things in the act of coming into existence exhibit the same marvel of concatenation, rather than simply the bare fact of succession.

    The future concatenates the past
  9. You will never be remarkable for quick-wittedness. Be it so, then; yet there are still a host of other qualities whereof you cannot say, ‘I have no bent for them.’ Cultivate these, then, for they are wholly within your power: sincerity, for example, and dignity; industriousness, and sobriety. Avoid grumbling; be frugal, considerate, and frank; be temperate in manner and in speech; carry yourself with authority. See how many qualities there are which could be yours at this moment. You can allege no native incapacity or inaptitude for them; and yet you choose to linger still on a less lofty plane.

    Build from your own capabilities
  10. Your mind will be like its habitual thoughts; for the soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts. Soak it then in such trains of thought as, for example: where life is possible at all, a right life is possible; life in a palace is possible; therefore even in a palace a right life is possible. Or again: the purpose behind each thing’s creation determines its development; the development points to its final state; the final state gives the clue to its chief advantage and good; therefore the chief good of a rational being is fellowship with his neighbour—for it has been made clear long ago that fellowship is the purpose behind our creation.

    Keep positive thoughts
  11. How have you behaved in the past to the gods, to your parents, your brothers, wife, children, teachers, tutors, friends, relatives, household? In all these relationships, up to the present time, can you fairly echo the poet’s line, ‘Never a harsh word, never an injustice to a single person?’ [Homer, Odyssey]. Call to mind all you have passed through, and all you have been enabled to endure. Reflect that the story of your life is over, and your service at an end; bethink you of all the fair sights you have seen, the pleasures and the pains you have spurned, the many honours disdained, the many consideration shown to the inconsiderate.

    In retrospect, will you regret things later?
  12. Look beneath the surface: never let a thing’s intrinsic qualities or worth escape you.
  13. To refrain from imitation is the best revenge

    He’s not without a sense of humour
  14. Either the world is a mere hotch-potch of random cohesions and dispersions, or else it is a unity of order and providence. If the former, why wish to survive in such a purposeless and chaotic confusion; why care about anything, save the manner of the ultimate return to dust; why trouble my head at all; since, do what I will, dispersion must overtake me sooner or later? But if the contrary be true, then I do reverence, I stand firmly, and I put my trust in the directing Power.

    This is the big question. Reversing the question: can a collection of chemicals and the reactions between them generate actions that appear to have intelligence? It may depend on your definition of intelligence.
  15. Because a thing is difficult for you, do not therefore suppose it to be beyond mortal power. On the contrary, if anything is possible and proper for man to do, assume that it must fall within your capacity.
  16. In death, Alexander of Macedon’s end differed no whit from his stable-boy’s. Either both were received into the same generative principle of the universe, or both alike were dispersed into atoms.

    In the end we are all the same.
  17. Think often of the bond that unites all things in the universe, and their dependence upon one another. All are, as it were, interwoven, and in consequence linked in mutual affection; because their orderly succession is brought about by the operation of the currents of tension, and the unity of all substance.

    Relates to an earlier passage on how things build upon what already exists
  18. If you suppose anything over which you have no control to be either good or bad for you, then the accident of missing the one or encountering the other is certain to make you aggrieved with the gods, and bitter against the men whom you know or suspect to be responsible for you failure or misfortune. We do, in fact, commit many injustices through attaching importance to things of this class. But 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.
  19. What is no good for the hive is no good for the bee
  20. In talk, mark carefully what is being said, and when action is afoot, what is being done. In the latter case, look at once to see what is purposed; and in the other, make certain what is meant.
  21. Think it no shame to be helped. Your business is to do your appointed duty, like a soldier in the breach. How, then, if you are lame, and unable to scale the battlements yourself, but could do it if you had the aid of a comrade?
  22. Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.
  23. Whatever the world may say or do, my part is to keep myself good; just as s gold piece, or an emerald, or a purpose robe insists perpetually, ‘Whatever the world may say or do, my part is to remain an emerald and keep my colour true.’

    To thine own self be true
  24. We shrink from change; yet is there anything that can come into being without it? What does Nature hold dearer, or more proper to herself? Could you have not bath unless the firewood underwent some change? Is it possible for any useful thing to be achieved without change? Do you not see, then, that change in yourself is of the same order, and no less necessary to Nature?

    Progress = change
    Change not= progress
  25. When anyone offends against you, let your first thought be, Under what conception of good and ill was this committed? Once you know that, astonishment and anger will give place to pity. For either your own ideas of what is good are no more advanced than his, or at least bear some likeness to them, in which case it is clearly your duty to pardon him; or else on the other hand, you have grown beyond supposing such actions to be either good or bad, and therefore it will be so much the easier to be tolerance of another’s blindness.
  26. Take it that you have died today, and your life’s story is ended; and henceforth regard what further time may be given you as an uncovenanted surplus, and live it out in harmony with nature.
  27. When men are inhuman, take care not to feel towards them as they do towards other humans
  28. Nature has not blended mind so inextricably with body as to prevent it from establishing its own frontiers and controlling its own domain. It is perfectly possible to be godlike, even though unrecognized as such. Always keep that in mind; and also remember that the needs of a happy life are very few. Mastery of dialectics or physics may have eluded you, but that is no reason to despair of achieving freedom, self-respect, unselfishness, and obedience to the will of God.

    On accomplishment: just because there are things you can’t do, does not mean there is nothing you can do.
  29. Universal Nature’s impulse was to create an orderly world. It follows, then, that everything now happening must follow a logical sequence; if it were not so, the prime purpose towards which the impulses of the World-Reason are directed would be an irrational one. Remembrance of this will help you face many things more calmly

    Intelligent design? 
    The first assumption there is a creator. The following is that the creator would make an orderly world. Does the existence of order suggest a creator; does it suggest intelligence? What is intelligence. Does it need to emanate from some living being or can it come from some inanimate object or system? The Earth as a “system” of interacting parts–both animate and not–appears to manifest some orderly process but is it really designed knowingly or merely dead reckoning. Is the order that it manifests because of the animate things and if so what is it that they do to order it?
  30. Do without flinching what man’s nature demands; say what seems to you most just—though with courtesy, modesty, and sincerity
  31. You cannot hope to be a scholar. But what you can do is to curb arrogance; what you can do is 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.

    Be what you can be; know what you can be
  32. Repentance is remorse for the loss of some helpful opportunity. Now, what is good is always helpful, and must be the concern of every good man; but an opportunity of pleasure is something no good man would ever repent of having let pass. It follows, therefore, that pleasure is neither good nor helpful.

    An interesting perspective on repentance: not of the deed but of what good was lost.
  33. If possible, make it a habit to discover the essential character of every impression, its effect on the self, and its response to a logical analysis

    Dig deeper than face value.
  34. To change your mind and defer to correction is not to sacrifice your independence; for such an act is your own, in pursuance of your own impulse, your own judgment, and your own thinking.

    Repurposing vacillation or finding a path to save face?
  35. What do the baths bring to mind? Oil, sweat, dirt, greasy water, and everything that is disgusting. Such, then, is life in all its parts, and such is every material thing in it.

    But the baths clean you up.
  36. A man’s true delight is to do the things he was made for. He was made to show goodwill to his kind, to rise above the promptings of his senses, to distinguish appearance from realities, and to pursue the study of universal Nature and her works.

    Why is this? What man was made for?
  37. Never confuse yourself by visions of an entire lifetime at once. That is, do not let your thoughts range over the whole multitude and variety of the misfortunes that may befall you, but rather, as you encounter each one, ask yourself, “What is there unendurable, so insupportable, in this?” you will find that you are ashamed to admit defeat. Again, 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. Even this burden, too, can be lessened if you confine it strictly to its own limits, and are severe enough with your mind’s inability to bear such a trifle.

    Where does fooling yourself by rationalizing things start to happen/begin
  38. Without an understanding of the nature of the universe, a man cannot know where he is; without an understanding of its purpose, he cannot know what he is, nor what the universe is itself. Let either of these discoveries be hid from him, and he will not be able so much as to give a reasons for his own existence. So what are we to think of anyone who cares to seek or shun that applause of the shouting multitudes, when they know neither where they are nor what they are?

    This perspective could reflect man’s desire for knowledge
    The interesting point of Aurelius may not be in his observations of and answers to life and the perspectives they convey, but more in the types of questions he asks, the perspective in those questions. Some of the questions are quite concise, perceptive and fundamental. Why link the knowledge of the nature of the universe to man’s understanding of where he is; why link an understanding of the purpose of the universe to what he is? Ignoring for the moment whether these are valid questions / relationships, stating the linkage is interesting and stated quite clearly. Assuming it is true then the obvious questions is whether these linkages can be fully explored and thus fully understood; the universe is after all infinite.
  39. As your breathing partakes of the circumfluent air, so let your thinking partake of the circumfluent Mind. For there is a mental Force which, for him who can draw it to himself, is no less ubiquitous and all-pervading than is the atmosphere for him who can breathe it.

    Sounds Jungian, though it may be more about the God within us all 
    There are a couple of questions: (1) what is the difference in this thinking (philosophy) of two millennia ago and today (2) it is interesting that a Caesar of Rome who consider these things.
  40. The general wickedness of mankind cannot injure the universe; nor can the particular wickedness of one man injure a fellow-man. It harms none but the culprit himself; and he can free himself from it as soon as he so chooses.

    More on the power within
  41. A man does not sin by commission only, but often by omission.
  42. All things that share the same elements tend to seek their own kind. Things earthy gravitate towards earth, things aqueous flow towards one another, things aerial likewise—whence the need for the barriers which keep them forcibly apart. The tendency of flames is to mount skyward, because of the elemental fire; even here below, they are so eager for the company of their own kind that any sort of material, if it be reasonably dry, will ignite with ease, since there is only a minority of its ingredients which is resistant to fire. In the same way, therefore, all portions of the universal Mind are drawn towards one another. More strongly, indeed; since being higher in the scale of creation, their eagerness to blend and combine with their affinities is proportionately keener.

    The superiority of man over beast
  43. Everything bears fruit; man, God, the whole universe, each in its proper season. No matter that the phrase is restricted in common use to vines and such like. Reason, too, yields both fruit, both for itself and for the worlds; since from it comes a harvest of other good things, themselves all bearing the stamp of reason.

    You can’t keep a good idea down
  44. Teach them better, if you can; if not, remember that kindliness has been given you for moments like these. The gods themselves show kindness to such men; and at times, so indulgent are they, will even aid them in their endeavours to secure health, wealth, or reputation. This you too could do; who is there to hinder you?

    Turn the other cheek?
  45. Work yourself hard, but not as if you were being made a victim, and not with any desire for sympathy or admiration. Desire one thing alone: that your actions or inactions alike should be worthy of a reasoning citizen.
  46. Today I have got myself out of all my perplexities; or rather, I have got the perplexities out of myself—for they were not without, but within; they lay in my own outlooks

    A man able to alter his outlook on things; repackage the view
  47. Facts stand wholly outside our gates; they are what they are, and no more; they know nothing about themselves, and they pass no judgment upon themselves. What is it, then, that pronounces the judgment? Our own guide and ruler, Reason.
  48. When you are outraged by somebody’s impudence, ask yourself at once, ‘Can the world exist without impudent people?’ It cannot; so do not ask for impossibilities. That man is simply one of the impudent whose existence is necessary to the world. Keep the same thought present, whenever you come across roguery, double-dealing or any other form of obliquity. You have only to remind yourself that the type is indispensable, and at once you will feel kindlier towards the individual. It is also helpful if you promptly recall what special qualities Nature has given us to counter such particular faults. For there are antidotes with which she has provided us: gentleness to meet brutality, for example, and other correctives for other ills. Generally speaking, too, you have the opportunity of showing the culprit his blunder—for everyone who does wrong is failing of his proper objective, and is thereby a blunderer. Besides, what harm have you suffered? Nothing has been done by any of these victims of your irritation that could hurtfully affect your own mind; and it is in the mind alone that anything evil or damaging to the self can have reality. What is there wrong or surprising, after all, in a boor behaving boorishly? See then if it is not rather yourself you ought to blame, for not foreseeing that he would offend in this way. You, in virtue of your reason, had every means for thinking it probably that he would do so; you forgot this, and now his offense takes you by surprise. When you are indignant with anyone for his perfidy or ingratitude, turn your thoughts first and foremost upon yourself. For the error is clearly you own, if you have put any faith in the good faith of a man of that stamp, or, when you have done him kindness, if it was not done unreservedly and in the belief that the action would be its own full reward. Once you have done a man a service, what more would you have? Is it not enough to have obeyed the laws of your own nature, without expecting to be paid for it? This is like the eye demanding a reward for seeing, or the feet for walking. It is for that very purpose that they exist; and they have their due in doing what they were created to do. Similarly, man is born for deeds of kindness; and when he has done a kindly action, or otherwise served the common welfare, he has done what he was made for, and has received his quittance.
  49. Either you go on living here, to which customer has sufficiently seasoned you by now; or you remove elsewhere, which you do of your own free election; or you die, which means that your service is at an end. Other choice there can be none; so put a good face on it.
  50. When another fault offends you, turn to yourself and consider what similar shortcomings are found in you. Do you, too, find your good in riches, pleasure, reputation, or such like? Think of this, and your anger will soon be forgotten in the reflection that he is only acting under pressure; what else could he do? Alternatively, if you are able, contrive his release from that pressure.
  51. Though men may hinder you from following the paths of reason, they can never succeed in deflecting you from sound action; but make sure that they are equally unsuccessful in destroying your charitable feelings towards them. You must defend both positions alike: your firmness in decision and action, and at the same time your gentleness to those who try to obstruct or otherwise molest you. It would be as great a weakness to give way your exasperation with them as it would be to abandon your course of action and be browbeaten into surrender. In either event the post of duty is deserted; in the one case through lack of courage, and in the other through alienation from men who are your natural brothers and friends.
  52. Will anyone sneer at me? That will be his concern; mine will be to ensure that nothing I do or say shall deserve the sneer. Will he perhaps hate me? Again, his concern. Mine, to be in friendship and charity with all men, ready to show this very man himself where he is mistaken, and to do so without recrimination or ostentatious forbearance, but—if we may assume that his words were not mere cant—as frankly and generously as Phocion of old. 
  53. 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 straightaway 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.


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