Meditations: with selected correspondence

Marcus Aurelius was the emperor of the Roman republic between 161-180 CE. His book of meditations are assumed to have been written whilst on an extended campaign against rebels on the German border; the notebooks seem to be advice to himself, repeating the same Stoic maxims over and over, almost tediously: life is short, give up judgement and your troubles go away, be true to your spirit, fate has determined your lot in life so be content with it, strive to be virtuous and kind to others. Only the first book of meditations has a coherent theme that unites each entry – he appreciates the gifts he’s received from various people in his life: mostly named men (Verus, Diognetus, Apollonius, Catulus, etc.) but two women (mother, wife both unnamed, tiresomely his wife is “so obedient, affectionate, straightforward”). The rest of the books are made up of fragmented thoughts that circle exhaustingly over the same Stoic ideas, little written gut punches to himself. Some of my favorites, below.

If you accomplish the task set before you, following right reason and with dedication, steadfastness, and good humor, and you never allow secondary issues to distract you but keep the deity within you pure and upright, as if you might have to surrender it at any moment; if you hold to this, awaiting nothing and fleeting from nothing, but remaining satisfied if your present action is in accordance with nature, and if all that you say and utter accords with the truthfulness of an earlier and purer age, you will live a happy life; and no one can stand in your way. (3.12)

Do away with judgement, and the notion ‘I have been harmed’ is done away with; do away with that notion, and the harm itself is gone. (4.7)

Quoting Democritus at the beginning of this:

‘Do little,’ he says, ‘if you want contentment of mind.’ Would it not be better to do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a creature that is sociable by nature prescribes, and as that nature prescribes it? For this will bring not only the contentment of mind that comes from acting aright, but also that which comes from doing little; for considering that the majority of our words and actions are anything but necessary, if a person dispenses with them he will have greater leisure and a less troubled mind. You should also remember to ask yourself on every occasion, ‘Is this something that is really necessary?’ And we should dispense not only with actions that are unnecessary, but also with unnecessary ideas; for in that way the needless actions that follow in their train will no longer ensue. (4.24)

You have seen all that? Now consider this. Do not disturb yourself; strive to be simple. Someone is doing you wrong? The wrong is to himself. Something has happened to you? That is good and well, for all that happens to you from the whole was ordained for you from the beginning and spun to be your fate. In short, life is brief, and you should profit from the present with prudence and justice. Be sober and yet relaxed. (4.26)

You are a little soul carrying a corpse around, as Epictetus used to say. (4.41)

… Never cease to observe how evanescent are all things human, and how worthless: today a drop of mucus, and tomorrow a mummy or a pile of ash. So make your way through this brief moment of time as one who is obedient to nature, and accept your end with a cheerful heart, just as an olive might ripen and fall, blessing the earth that bore it and grateful to the tree that gave it growth. (4.48)

Is one afraid of change? Why, what can come about without change? And what is nearer and dearer to universal nature? Can you yourself take a hot bath unless the firewood suffers change? Can you be nourished unless your food suffers change? Can anything else of value be accomplished without change? And do you not see, then, that change in yourself is of a similar nature, and similarly necessary to universal nature? (7.18)

A glowering expression on one’s face is utterly contrary to nature, and if it often reappears, the grace begins to die from one’s face, until, in the end, it is wholly extinguished, and can never be rekindled. (7.24)

Watch the stars in their courses as though you were accompanying them on their way, and reflect perpetually on how the elements are constantly changing from one to another; for the thought of these things purifies us from the defilement of our earthly existence. (7.47)

As if you had died and your life had extended only to this present moment, use the surplus that is left to you to live from this time onward according to nature. (7.56)

Human beings have come into the world for the sake of one another; either instruct them, then, or put up with them. (8.59)