Meditations by Marcus Aurelius — Book Summary and Notes

Written in Greek by the only Roman emperor who was also a philosopher, without any intention of publication, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius offer a remarkable series of challenging spiritual reflection.

Written in Greek by the only Roman emperor who was also a philosopher, without any intention of publication, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius offer a remarkable series of challenging spiritual reflections and exercises developed as the emperor struggled to understand himself and make sense of the universe. While the Meditations were composed to provide personal consolation and encouragement, Marcus Aurelius also created one of the greatest of all works of philosophy: a timeless collection that has been consulted and admired by statesmen, thinkers and readers throughout the centuries.


By Marcus Aurelius

Book 1

From my grandfather Verus: decency and a mild temper.”

From what they say and I remember of my natural father: integrity and manliness.”

From my mother: piety, generosity, the avoidance of wrongdoing and even the thought of it; also simplicity of living, well clear of the habits of the rich.”

From my great-grandfather: not to have attended schools for the public; to have had good teachers at home, and to realize that this is the sort of thing one should spend lavishly.”

From my tutor: not to become a Green or Blue supporter at the races, or side with the Lights or Heavies in the amphitheater; to tolerate pain and feel few needs; to work with my own hands and mind my own business; to be deaf to malicious gossip.”

From Diognetus: to avoid empty enthusiasms; to disbelieve all that is talked by miracle-mongers and quacks about incantations, exorcism of demons, and the like; not to hold quail-fights or be excited by such sports; to tolerate plain speaking; to have an affinity for philosophy, and to attend the lectures first of Baccheius, then of Tandasis and Marcianus; to write essays from a young age; to love the camp-bed, the hide blanket, and all else involved in the Greek training.”

From Rusticus: to grasp the idea of wanting correction and treatment for my character; not to be diverted into a taste for rhetoric, so not writing up my speculations, delivering my little moral sermons, or presenting a glorified picture of the ascetic or the philanthropist; to keep clear of speechifying, versifying, and pretentious language; not to walk around at home in ceremonial dress, or do anything else like that; to write letters in an unaffected style, like his own letter written to my mother from Sinuessa; to be readily recalled to conciliation with those who have taken or given offense, just as soon as they are willing to turn back; to read carefully, not satisfied with my superficial thoughts or quick to accept the facile views of others; to have encountered the Discourses of Epictetus, to which he introduced me with his copy.”

From Apollonius: moral freedom, the certainty to ignore the dice of fortune, and have no other perspective, even for a moment, than that of reason alone; to be always the same man, unchanged in sudden pain, in the loss of a child, in lingering sickness; to see clearly in his living example that a man can combine intensity and relaxation; not to be impatient in explanation; the observance of a man who regarded as the least of his gifts his experience and skill in communicating his philosophical insights; the lesson of how to take apparent favors from one’s friends, neither compromised by them nor insensitive in their rejection.”

From Sextus: a kindly disposition, and the pattern of a household governed by the paterfamilias; the concept of life lived according to nature; an unaffected dignity; intuitive concern for his friends; tolerance both of ordinary people and of the emptily opinionated; an agreeable manner with all, so that the pleasure of his conversation was greater than any flattery, and his very presence brought him the highest respect from all the company; certainty of grasp and method in the discovery and organization of the essential principles of life; never to give the impression of anger or any other passion, but to combine complete freedom from passion with the greatest human affection; to praise without fanfare, and to wear great learning lightly.”

From Alexander the grammarian: not to leap on mistakes or captiously interrupt when anyone makes an error of vocabulary, syntax, or pronunciation, but neatly to introduce the correct form of that particular expression by way of answer, confirmation, or discussion of the matter itself rather than its phrasing – or by some other such felicitous prompting.”

From Fronto: to understand the effect of suspicion, caprice, and hypocrisy in the exercise of absolute rule; and that for the most part these people we call ‘Patricians’ are somewhat short of human affection.”

From Alexander the Platonist: rarely, and never without essential cause, to say or write to anyone that ‘I am too busy’; nor to use a similar excuse, advancing ‘pressure of circumstances’, in constant avoidance of the proprieties inherent in our relations to our fellows and contemporaries.”

From Catulus: not to spurn a friend’s criticism, even if it may be an unreasonable complaint, but to try to restore his usual feelings; to speak of one’s teachers with wholehearted gratitude, as is recorded of Domitius and Athenodotus; and a genuine love for children.”

From Severus: love of family, love of truth, love of justice; to have come by his help to understand Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dio, Brutus; to have conceived the idea of a balanced constitution, a commonwealth based on equality and freedom of speech, and of a monarchy which values above all the liberty of the subject; from him, too, a constant and vigorous respect for philosophy; beneficence, unstinting generosity, optimism; his confidence in the affection of his friends, his frankness with those who met with his censure, and open likes and dislikes, so that his friends did not need to guess at his wishes.”

From Maximus: self-mastery, immune to any passing whim; good cheer in all circumstances, including illness; a nice balance of character, both gentle and dignified; an uncomplaining.”


Book 2

“Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. The nature of the offender himself is akin to mine. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong. Nor can I be angry with my relative or hate him.”

“Remember how long you have been putting this off, how many times the gods have given you a period of grace and not used it. It is high time now for you to understand the universe of which you are a part and the governor of that universe of whom you constitute an emanation: and that there is a limit circumscribed to your time – if you do not use it to clear away your clouds, it will be gone, and you will be gone, and the opportunity will not return.”

“Perform each action as if it were the last of your life. You see how few things a man needs to master for the settled flow of a god-fearing life.”

“Life for each of us is a mere moment, and this life of yours is nearly over; while you still show yourself no honor, let your welfare depend on other people’s souls.”

“Always remember these things: what the nature of the Whole is, what my nature is, the relation of this nature to that, what kind of part it is of what kind of Whole.”

“You may leave this life at any moment: have this possibility in your mind in all that you do, say, or think.”

“No one loses any life other than the one he lives, or lives any life other than the one he loses.”

“The present moment is equal for all. No one can lose the past or the future—how could anyone be deprived of what he does not possess?”

“Accept all that happens and is allotted to it as coming from that other source which is its origin: and at all times awaiting death with the glad confidence that it is nothing more than the dissolution of the elements which every living creature is composed. “

Book 3

“If we live longer, there is no guarantee that our mind will likewise retain that power to comprehend and study the world which contributes to our experience of things divine and human.”

“Do not waste the remaining part of your life in thoughts about other people when you are not thinking regarding some aspect of the common good. Why deprive yourself of the time for some other task?”

“Train yourself to think only those thoughts such that in answer to the sudden question ‘What is in your mind now?’ you could say with immediate frankness whatever it is, this or that:”

“He should not hold to the opinions of all, but only those who live their lives in agreement with nature.”

“Your duty is to stand straight - not held straight.”

“If you discover in human life something better than the self-sufficiency of your mind which keeps you acting in accord with true reason… then turn to it with all your heart and enjoy this prime good you have found. But if nothing is shown to be better than the very god that is seated in you, which has brought all your impulses under its control, which scrutinizes your thoughts, which has withdrawn itself, then give no room to anything else: once turned and inclined to any alternative, you will struggle after that to restore the priority of that good.”

“Never regard as a benefit to yourself anything which will force you to break your faith at some point.”

“Remind yourself too that each of us lives only in the present moment, a mere fragment of time: the rest is life past or uncertain future. Sure, life is a small thing, and small the cranny of the earth in which we live it: small to even the longest fame after that, which is itself subject to a succession of little men who will quickly die and do not know even of themselves, let alone of those long dead.”

“If you set yourself to your present task along the path of true reason, with all determination, vigor, and goodwill… expecting nothing, neglecting nothing, but self-content with each present action taken following nature and a heroic truthfulness in all that you say and mean – then you will lead a good life. And nobody can stop you.”

“And if all people mistrust him, for living a simple, decent, and cheerful life, he does not quarrel with any of them, and no diversion from the road which leads to the final goal of his life: to this, he must come pure, at peace, ready to depart, in unforced harmony with his fate.”

Book 4

“No action should be undertaken without aim, or other than in conformity with a principle affirming the art of life.”

“Well then, will a little fame distract you? Look at the speed of universal oblivion, the gulf of immeasurable time both before and after, the vacuity of applause, the indiscriminate fickleness of your apparent supporters, the tiny room in which all this is confined.”

“What does not make a human being worse in himself cannot make his life worse either: it cannot harm him from outside or inside.”

“When someone does you wrong, do not judge things as he interprets them or would like you to interpret them. Just see them as they are, in plain truth.”

“Always have these two principles in readiness. First, to do only what the reason inherent in kingly and judicial power prescribes for the benefit of humankind. Second, to change your ground if there is someone to correct and guide you away from some notion.”

“What ease of mind you gain from not looking at what your neighbor has said or done or thought, but only at your actions, to make them just, reverential, imbued with good!”

“If you want to be happy’, says Democritus, ‘do little.’ May it not be better to do what is necessary, what the reason of a naturally social being demands, and the way reason demands it did.”

“You are a soul carrying a corpse, as Epictetus used to say.”

“Change: nothing inherently flawed in the process, nothing inherently good in the result.

“Always remember Heraclitus: ‘The death of earth is the birth of water; the death of water is the birth of air; the death of air is fire, and back again.”

“This is no misfortune, but to bear it true to yourself is good fortune.”

Book 5

“At break of day, when you are reluctant to get up, have this thought ready: ‘I am getting up for a man’s work. Do I resent it if I am going out to do what I was born for, the purpose for which I was brought into the world?”

“You have less regard for your nature than the smith has for his metal work, the dancer for his dancing, the money-grubber for his money, the exhibitionist for his little moment of fame. Yet these people, when passionate, give up food and sleep to promote their pursuits: and you think social action less important, less worthy of effort?”

“They cannot admire you for intellect. Granted – but you cannot say many other qualities, ‘But that is not the way I am made’. So display those virtues wholly in your power – integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, and generosity. Do you not see how many virtues you can already display without any excuse for lack of talent or aptitude? And yet you are still content to lag.”

“One should console oneself with the anticipation of natural release, not impatient of its delay, but taking comfort in just these two thoughts.”

“Your mind will take on the character of your most frequent thoughts: souls are dyed by thoughts.”

“What is not harmful to the city does not harm the citizen either.”

“Think of the whole of existence, of which you are the tiniest part; think of the whole of time, in which you have been assigned a brief and fleeting moment; think of destiny – what fraction of that are you?”

“Another does wrong. What is that to me? Let him see to it: he has his disposition, his action. I have what universal nature wishes me to have now, and I do what my nature wishes me to do now.”

“Bring your rationality, then, to bear on his rationality – show him, tell him. If he listens, you will cure him, and no need for anger.”

“You can live here in this world just as you intend to live when you have left it. But if this is not allowed, you should depart life itself.”

“You can live here in this world just as you intend to live when you have left it. But if this is not allowed, then you should depart life itself.”

“So what is there left to keep us here, if the objects of sense are ever changeable and unstable, if our senses themselves are blurred and easily smudged like wax if our very soul is a mere exhalation of blood, if success in such a world is vacuous?”

“There are two things common to the souls of all rational creatures, god or man: they are immune to any external impediment, and the good they seek resides in a just disposition and just action, with this the limit of their desire.”

“If this is no wrongdoing of mine, nor the result of any wrong done to me, and if the community is not harmed, then why do I let it trouble me? And what is the harm that can be done to the community?”

“There was a time when I met luck at every turn.’ But luck is the good fortune you determine for yourself: good fortune consists of good inclinations of the soul, good impulses, and good actions.”

Book 6

“If you are doing your proper duty, let it not matter to you whether you are cold or warm, whether you are sleepy or well-slept, whether men speak badly or well of you, even whether you are on the point of death or doing something else: because even this, the act in which we die, is one of the acts of life, and so here too it suffices to ‘make the best move you can’.”

“Look within: do not allow the special quality or worth of anything to pass you by.”

“All that exists will soon change. Either it will be turned into vapor if all matter is a unity, or it will be scattered in atoms.”

“The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.”

“How good it is, when you have roast meat or suchlike foods before you, to impress on your mind that this is the dead body of a fish, this the dead body of a bird or pig; and again, that the Falernian wine is the mere juice of grapes, and your purple edged robe simply the hair of a sheep soaked in shell-fish blood! And in sexual intercourse, it is no more than the membrane friction and a spurt of mucus ejected. How good these perceptions are at getting to the heart of the real thing and penetrating through it, so you can see it for what it is!”

“Most of the things valued by the masses come under the categories of what is sustained by cohesion (minerals, timber) or natural growth (figs, vines, olives). What is valued by the slightly more advanced belongs to the class of things sustained by a principle of life, such as flocks and herds or the bare ownership of many enslaved people. The things valued by yet more refined people are those sustained by the rational soul – not reason as such, but reason expressed in craftsmanship or some other skill. But the man who fully esteems the soul as rational and political no longer has any regard for those other things but, above all else, keeps his soul in a constant state of rational and social activity and cooperates to that end with his like.”

“The praise of the masses is the mere rattle of tongues.”

“If someone can prove me wrong and show me my mistake in any thought or action, I shall gladly change. I seek the truth, which never harmed anyone: the harm is to persist in one’s self-deception and ignorance.”

“I do my duty: the other things do not distract me. They are either inanimate or irrational, have lost the road, and are ignorant of the true way.”

“Death is relief from reaction to the senses, from the puppet strings of impulse, from the analytical mind, and service to the flesh.”

“The mind is only concerned with the present: its activities in the future and the past are also indifferent at any moment.”

“If we determine that only what lies in our power is good or evil, there is no reason left us either to charge a god or to take a hostile stance to a man.”

“In this world, there is only one thing of value, to live out your life in truth and justice, tolerant of those who are neither true nor just.”

“Just as you are content with the amount of matter allocated to you, so you should be content with your time allocation.”

“Accustom yourself not to disregard what someone else has to say: as far as possible enter into the speaker's mind.”

“How many with whom I came into the world have already left!”

“What sort of people they wish to please! And what kind of actions are the means of their success? How quickly time will cover everything – and how much is covered already.”

Book 7

“I have seen this often before.’ Generally, wherever you look, you will find the same things. The histories – ancient, more recent, and modern – are full of them: cities and households are full of them today. There is nothing new. All are familiar, and all short-lived.”

“A person’s worth is measured by the worth of what he values.”

“Is my mind sufficient for this task, or is it not? If it is, I use it for the task as an instrument given to me by the nature of the Whole. If it is not, I either cede the work (if it is otherwise my responsibility) to someone better able to accomplish it or do it as best I can, calling in aid someone who, in cooperation with my own directing mind, can achieve what is at this particular time the need and benefit of the community.”

“How many who once rose to fame are now consigned to oblivion: and how many who sang their fame are long disappeared.”

“Do not be ashamed of help. What, then, if you are lame and cannot climb the parapet alone, but this is made possible by another’s help?”

“Do not let the future trouble you. You will come to it (if that is what you must) for the same reason you apply now to the present.”

“Everything material rapidly disappears in the universal substance; every cause is rapidly taken up into the universal reason; and the memory of everything is rapidly buried in eternity.”

“I am not yet harmed unless I judge this occurrence something bad: and I can refuse to do so.”

“Soon you will have forgotten all things: soon all things will have forgotten you.”

“In the field of moral behavior, if even the consciousness of doing wrong is lost, what reason is there left for living?”

“All that you see will in a moment be changed by the nature which governs the Whole: it will create other things out of this material, and then again others out of that so that the world is always young.”

“When someone does you some wrong, you should consider immediately what judgment of good or evil led him to wrong you. You will pity him and not feel surprised or angry when you see this.”

“Do not dream of possession of what you do not have: rather reflect on the greatest blessings in what you do have, and on their account remind yourself how much they would have been missed if they were not there.”

“It is shameful that the face should be so obedient, shaping and ordering its expression as the mind dictates, when the mind cannot impose its shape and order on itself.”

“You are mistaken, my friend. If you think that a man of any worth should consider the risk of life or death and not have as his sole consideration in any action, whether he is doing right or wrong, the act of a good man or a bad.”

“Whatever position a man has taken up in his best judgment or is assigned by his commander, there, it seems to me. He should stay and face the danger, giving no thought to death or anything else before dishonor.”

“Do not look around at the directing minds of other people, but keep looking straight ahead to where nature is leading you – both universal nature, in what happens to you, and your nature, in what you must do yourself.”

“Imagine you were now dead or had not lived before this moment. Now view the rest of your life as a bonus, and live it as nature directs.”

“In every contingency, remember those who had the same experience before and reacted with vexation, disbelief, or complaint. So where are they now? Nowhere.”

“The action is important, the context indifferent.”

“Pain is neither unendurable nor unending, as long as you remember its limits and do not exaggerate it in your imagination.”

“To live each day as if it were your last, without frenzy, apathy, or pretense.”

“The nature of the Whole set itself to create a universe. So now either everything that comes into being springs from that as a logical consequence or else even the primary aims to which the directing mind of the universe sets its impulse is irrational.”

Book 8

“Be satisfied if you can just live the rest of your life, whatever remains, in the way your nature wishes.”

“Ask yourself this about each action: ‘How does this sit with me? Shall I regret it?”

“Whenever you meet someone, ask yourself first this immediate question: ‘What beliefs does this person hold about the good and bad in life?’ Because if he believes this or that about pleasure and pain and their constituents, fame and obscurity, death and life, then I shall not find it surprising or strange if he acts in this or that way, and I shall remember that he has no choice but to act as he does.”

“If the choice is yours, why do the thing? But if it is another’s choice, what do you blame – atoms or gods? Either is madness. There is no blame.”

“What dies does not pass out of the universe.”

“It is in my power now to keep this soul of mine free from any vice or passion or any other disturbance at all: but seeing all things for what they are, I can treat them on their merits.”

“Suppose you have made yourself an outcast from the unity of nature – you were born a part of it, but now you have cut yourself off. Yet here lies the paradox – that it is open to you to rejoin that unity.”

Book 9

“Everything now is as it was in the days of those we have buried.”

“All things are in the process of change. You are subject to constant alteration and gradual decay. So too is the whole universe.”

“You should leave another’s wrong where it lies.”

“Just as you are a complementary part of a social system, so too your every action should complement a life of social principle. If any action of yours, then, does not have direct or indirect relation to the social end, it pulls your life apart and destroys its unity.”

“When another blames you or hates you, or people voice similar criticisms, go to their souls, penetrate inside, and see what sort of people they are.”

“How brief the gap from birth to dissolution, how vast the gulf of time before your birth, and an equal infinity after your dissolution.”

“Loss is nothing more than change.”

“Better to use your power in freedom rather than show a servile and supine concern for what you cannot control.”

“One man prays: ‘How can I sleep with that woman?’ Your prayer is: ‘How can I lose the desire to sleep with her?’ Another prays: ‘How can I be rid of that man?’ You pray: ‘How can I stop wanting to be rid of him?’ Another: ‘How can I save my little child?’ You: ‘How can I learn not to fear his loss?’ And so on. Give all your prayers this turn, and observe what happens.”

“What more do you want, man, from a kind act? Is it not enough that you have done something consonant with your nature – do you now put a price on it?”

Book 10

“Will you ever be complete and free of need, missing nothing, desiring nothing live or lifeless for pleasure?”

“If he is going wrong, teach him kindly and show him what he has failed to see.”

“Remember that ‘clarity of mind’ was meant to signify for you discriminating attention to detail and vigorous thought; ‘a cooperative mind’ the willing acceptance of the dispensation of universal nature; ‘independence of mind’ the elevation of your thinking faculty above the calm or troubled affections of the flesh, above paltry fame or death or any other indifferent thing.”

“Will it make any difference to you if others criticize what is, in fact, just and true?”

“The time you have left is short. Live it as if you were on a mountain. Here or there makes no difference if you take the world as your city wherever you live. Let men see; let them observe a true man living following nature. If they cannot bear him, let them kill him – a better fate than a life like theirs.”

“No more roundabout discussion of what makes a good man. Be one!”

“Each thing is, on the scale of existence, a mere fig-seed; on the scale of time, one turn of a drill.”

“All the same as now: just a different cast.”

“Consider each thing you do and ask yourself whether to lose it through death makes death itself any cause for fear.”

“Whenever you take offense at the wrong done by another, move on at once to consider what similar wrong you are committing.”

Book 11

“I am in possession of my own.”

“It reflects that our successors will see nothing new, just as our predecessors saw nothing more than we do: such is the sameness of things, a man of forty with any understanding whatsoever has, in a sense, seen all the past and all the future.”

“What is your profession? Being a good man.”

“Tragedies were brought on stage to remind you of what can happen, that these happenings are determined by nature, and that what moves you in the theatre should not burden you on the larger stage of life.”

“The external things whose pursuit or avoidance troubles you do not force themselves on you, but in a way, you yourself go out to them. ”

“He is indifferent to things indifferent.”

“It is madness to expect bad men to do no wrong, but it is cruel tyranny to allow them such behavior to others while demanding that they do no wrong to you.”

“Our impulses ensure that each impulse is conditional, has a social purpose, and is proportionate to the value of its goal. We must keep clear of personal motivation and, at the same time, show no disinclination to anything outside our immediate control.”

Book 12

“There are three things in your composition: body, breath, and mind. The first two are yours to the extent that you must take care of them, but only the third is in the full sense your own.”

“I have often wondered how everyone loves himself more than anyone else but rates his judgment of himself below that of others.”

“Consider, what is pain? What is pleasure? What is death? What is fame? Who is not himself the cause of his unrest? Reflect how no one is hampered by any other; and that all is as thinking makes it so.”

“The lamp's light shines on and does not lose its radiance until it is extinguished. Will then the truth, justice, and self-control which fuel you fail before your end?”

“Presented with the impression that someone has done wrong, how do I know this was wrong? And if it was wrong, how do I know that he was not already condemning himself, which is the equivalent of tearing his face?”

“If it is not right, don’t do it: if it is not true, don’t say it.”

“What more do you want? To live on? Or is it to continue sensation and impulse? To wax and then to wane? To make use of your voice, your mind? What in all this strikes you as good cause for regret?”

“Reflecting on all this, think nothing important other than active pursuit where your nature leads and passive acceptance of what universal nature brings.”

“Mortal man, you have lived as a citizen in this great city. What matter if that life is five or fifty years? The laws of the city apply equally to all. So what is there to fear in your dismissal from the city? This is no tyrant or corrupt judge who dismisses you, but the very same nature that brought you in. It is like the officer who engaged a comic actor dismissing him from the stage. ‘But I have not played my five acts, only three.’ ‘True, but three acts can be the whole play in life.’ Completion is determined by that being who caused first your composition and now your dissolution. You have no part in either causation. Go then in peace: the god who lets you go is at peace with you.”