It was quite the experience to dive into the thoughts of Marcus Aurelius, and comparing them to the modern ways of thinking and then seeing how true they still stand truly astound me. This is perhaps the book that has influenced me the most, out of those I've read.

20 min read

Book 1: Debts and Lessons

These are some virtues [[Marcus Aurelius]] admires in others.

  • "Character and self-control."
  • "Integrity and manliness."
  • "To do my own work, mind my own business, and have no time for slanderers."
  • "The recognition that I needed to train and discipline my character."
  • "To read attentively—not to be satisfied with 'just getting the gist of it.'"

Book 2: On the River Gran, Among the Quadi

Remember how long you’ve been putting this off, how many extensions the gods gave you, and you didn’t use them. At some point you have to recognize what world it is that you belong to; what power rules it and from what source you spring; that there is a limit to the time assigned you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return.

One of my favorites. You've been given so many opportunities. Use them.

Everything is just an impression.” —Monimus the Cynic. And the response is obvious enough. But the point is a useful one, if you take it for what it’s worth.

Each of us see the world differently. We view the world through the eyes we've attained throughout our lives.

This is a simple yet powerful concept.

Book 4

Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed—and you haven’t been.

—It’s unfortunate that this has happened. No. It’s fortunate that this has happened and I’ve remained unharmed by it—not shattered by the present or frightened of the future. It could have happened to anyone. But not everyone could have remained unharmed by it. Why treat the one as a misfortune rather than the other as fortunate? Can you really call something a misfortune that doesn’t violate human nature? Or do you think something that’s not against nature’s will can violate it? But you know what its will is. Does what’s happened keep you from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, straightforwardness, and all the other qualities that allow a person’s nature to fulfill itself? So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.

A favorite of mine. It is lucky that it happened to me, for I can bear the burden, and someone else may not be as fortunate.

No random actions, none not based on underlying principles.

Hard to live by. Nevertheless, important.

It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character. Otherwise it cannot harm you—inside or out.

Two kinds of readiness are constantly needed: (i) to do only what the logos of authority and law directs, with the good of human beings in mind; (ii) to reconsider your position, when someone can set you straight or convert you to his. But your conversion should always rest on a conviction that it’s right, or benefits others—nothing else. Not because it’s more appealing or more popular.

Seek truth, not popular opinion.

Not to live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you. While you’re alive and able—be good.

Blind: (adj.) one who keeps the eyes of his mind shut tight.

There are too many things we don't see, yet we still choose to willfully ignore some of which we should focus our gaze on the most.

Look into their minds, at what the wise do and what they don’t.

Learn from them.

To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.

To be calm while all around you lose their minds.

Book 5

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.

I was once a fortunate man but at some point fortune abandoned me. But true good fortune is what you make for yourself. Good fortune: good character, good intentions, and good actions.

True good fortune is what you make for yourself.

Book 6

The best revenge is not to be like that.

Not to assume it’s impossible because you find it hard. But to recognize that if it’s humanly possible, you can do it too.

If anyone can refute me—show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective—I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.

A favorite of mine.

You don’t have to turn this into something. It doesn’t have to upset you. Things can’t shape our decisions by themselves.

Book 7

Don’t be ashamed to need help. Like a soldier storming a wall, you have a mission to accomplish. And if you’ve been wounded and you need a comrade to pull you up? So what?

Let it happen, if it wants, to whatever it can happen to. And what’s affected can complain about it if it wants. It doesn’t hurt me unless I interpret its happening as harmful to me. I can choose not to.

You are only harmed if you choose to be.

Treat what you don’t have as nonexistent. Look at what you have, the things you value most, and think of how much you’d crave them if you didn’t have them. But be careful. Don’t feel such satisfaction that you start to overvalue them—that it would upset you to lose them.

“And why should we feel anger at the world? As if the world would notice!”

Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.

A favorite.

Book 8

The first step: Don’t be anxious. Nature controls it all. And before long you’ll be no one, nowhere—like Hadrian, like Augustus. The second step: Concentrate on what you have to do. Fix your eyes on it. Remind yourself that your task is to be a good human being; remind yourself what nature demands of people. Then do it, without hesitation, and speak the truth as you see it. But with kindness. With humility. Without hypocrisy.

Remember your insignificance. Then do what is right. Do what you must.

This is what you deserve. You could be good today. But instead you choose tomorrow.

External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now.

Book 9

To do harm is to do yourself harm. To do an injustice is to do yourself an injustice—it degrades you.

And you can also commit injustice by doing nothing.

Do what nature demands. Get a move on—if you have it in you—and don’t worry whether anyone will give you credit for it. And don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic; be satisfied with even the smallest progress, and treat the outcome of it all as unimportant.

Book 10

Everything that happens is either endurable or not. If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining. If it’s unendurable . . . then stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well. Just remember: you can endure anything your mind can make endurable, by treating it as in your interest to do so. In your interest, or in your nature.

To stop talking about what the good man is like, and just be one.

Book 11

As you kiss your son good night, says Epictetus, whisper to yourself, “He may be dead in the morning.” Don’t tempt fate, you say. By talking about a natural event? Is fate tempted when we speak of grain being reaped?

Those you love will not always be around. It is not guaranteed. Get the most of the time you do have with them.

Book 12

It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own. If a god appeared to us—or a wise human being, even—and prohibited us from concealing our thoughts or imagining anything without immediately shouting it out, we wouldn’t make it through a single day. That’s how much we value other people’s opinions—instead of our own.

Previous notes

B2 V4

"Remember how long you have been putting this off, how many times you have been given a period of grace by the gods 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."

B2 V13

"Nothing is more miserable than one who is always out and about, running round everything in circles - in Pindar's words 'delving deep in the bowels of the earth' - and looking for signs and symptoms to divine his neighbours' minds. He does not realize that it is sufficient to concentrate solely on the divinity within himself and to give it true service."

B2 V15

"All is as thinking makes it so". The retort made to Monimus the Cynic is clear enough: but clear too is the value of his saying, if one takes the kernel of it, as far as it is true.

B3 V5

“You should take no action unwillingly, selfishly, uncritically, or with conflicting motives. Do not dress up your thoughts in smart finery: do not be a gabbler or a meddler. Further, let the god that is within you be the champion of the being you are a male, mature in years, a statesman, a Roman, a ruler: one who has taken his post like a soldier waiting for the Retreat from life to sound, and ready to depart, past the need for any loyal oath or human witness. And see that you keep a cheerful demeanour, and retain your independence of outside help and the peace which others can give. Your duty is to stand straight - not held straight.”

B3 V12

“If you set yourself to your present task along the path of true reason, with all determination, vigour,and good will: if you admit no distraction, but keep your own divinity pure and standing strong, as if you had to surrender it right now; if you grapple this to you, expecting nothing, shirking nothing, but self-content with each present action taken in accordance with nature and a heroic truthfulness in all that you say and mean - then you will lead a good life. And nobody is able to stop you.”

B4 V2

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

B4 V3

“Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains; and thou too art wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for 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; and I affirm that tranquility is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind. Constantly then give to thyself this retreat, and renew thyself; and let thy principles be brief and fundamental, which, as soon as thou shalt recur to them, will be sufficient to cleanse the soul completely, and to send thee back free from all discontent with the things to which thou returnest. For with what art thou discontented? With the badness of men? Recall to thy mind this conclusion, that rational animals exist for one another, and that to endure is a part of justice, and that men do wrong involuntarily; and consider how many already, after mutual enmity, suspicion, hatred, and fighting, have been stretched dead, reduced to ashes; and be quiet at last.- But perhaps thou art dissatisfied with that which is assigned to thee out of the universe.- Recall to thy recollection this alternative; either there is providence or atoms, fortuitous concurrence of things; or remember the arguments by which it has been proved that the world is a kind of political community, and be quiet at last.- But perhaps corporeal things will still fasten upon thee.- Consider then further that the mind mingles not with the breath, whether moving gently or violently, when it has once drawn itself apart and discovered its own power, and think also of all that thou hast heard and assented to about pain and pleasure, and be quiet at last.- But perhaps the desire of the thing called fame will torment thee.- 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 judgement 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.”

B4 V7

"Remove the judgement, and you have removed the thought "I am hurt": remove the thought "I am hurt", and the hurt itself is removed"

B4 V18

"What ease of mind you gain from not looking at what your neighbour has said or done or thought, but only at your own actions, to make them just, reverential, imbued with good! So do not glance at the black characters either side, but run right on to the line: straight, not straggly."

B4 V24

""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 done? This brings happiness both of right action and of little action. Most of what we say and do is unnecessary: remove the superfluity, and you will have more time and less bother. So in every case one should prompt oneself: "Is this, or is it not, something necessary?" And the removal of the unnecessary should apply not only to actions but to thoughts also: then no redundant actions either will follow."

B4 V32

"Consider, for example, the time of Vespasian. You will see everything the same. People marrying, having children, falling ill, dying, fighting, feasting, trading, farming, flattering, pushing, suspecting, plotting, praying for the death of others, grumbling at their lot, falling in love, storing up wealth, longing of consulships and kingships. And now that life of theirs is gone, vanished. Pass on again to the time of Trajan. Again, everything the same. That life too is dead. Similarly, look at the histories of other eras and indeed whole nations, and see how many lives of striving met with a quick fall and resolution into the elements. Above all, review in your mind those you have seen your self in empty struggles, refusing to act in accord with their own natural constitution, to hold tight to it and find it sufficient. And in this context you must remember that there is proportionate value in our attention to each action, so you will not lose heart if you devote no more time than they warrant to matters of less importance."

B4 V49

"Be like the rocky headland on which waves constantly break. It stands firm, and round it the seething waters are laid to rest.

'It is my bad luck that this has happened to me.' No, you should rather say: 'It is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without pain, neither crushed by the present nor fearful of the future.' Because such a thing could have happened to any man, but not every man could have borne it without pain. So why see more misfortune in the event than good fortune in your ability to bear it? Or in general would you call anything a misfortune for a man which is not a deviation from man's nature? Or anything a deviation from man's nature which is not contrary to the purpose of his nature? Well, then. You have learnt what that purpose is. Can there be anything, then, in this happening which prevents you being just, high-minded, self-controlled, intelligent, judicious, truthful, honorable and free - or any other of those attributes whose combination is the fulfillment of man's proper nature? So in all future events which might induce sadness remember to call on this principle: 'this is no misfortune, but to bear it true to yourself is good fortune.'"

B5 V1

"At break of day, when you are reluctant to get up, have this thought ready to mind: 'I am getting up for a man's work. Do I still then resent it, if I am going out to do what I was born for, the purpose for which I was brought into the world? Or was I created to wrap myself in blankets and keep warm?' 'But this is more pleasant.' Were you then born for pleasure - all for feeling, not for action? Can you not see plants , birds, ants, spiders, bees all doing their own work, each helping in their own way to order the world? And then you do not want to do the work of a human being - you do not hurry to the demands of your own nature. 'But one needs rest too.' One does indeed: I agree. but nature has set limits to this too, just as it has to eating and drinking, and yet you go beyond these limits, beyond what you need. Not in your actions, though, not any longer: here you stay below your capability."

B5 V5

"They cannot admire you for your intellect. Granted - but there are many other qualities of which you cannot say, but 'that is not the way I am made'. So display those virtues which are wholly in your own power - integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity. Do you not see how many virtues you can already display without any excuse of lack of talent or aptitude? And yet you are still content to lag behind. Or does the fact that you have no inborn talent oblige you to grumble, to scrimp, to toady, to blame your poor body, to suck up, to brag, to have your mind in such turmoil? No, by heaven, it does not! You could have got rid of all this long ago, and only be charged - if charge there is - with being rather slow and dull of comprehension. And yet even this can be worked on - unless you ignore or welcome your stupidity."

B5 V6

"One sort of person, when he has done a kindness to another, is quick also to chalk up the return due to him. A second is not so quick in that way, but even so he privately thinks of the other as his debtor, and is well aware of what he has done. A third sort is in a way not even conscious of his actions, but is like the vine which has produced grapes and looks for nothing else once it has borne its fruit."

B5 V31

"How have you behaved up to now towards the gods, parents, brother, wife, children, teachers, tutors, friends, relations, servants? Has your principle up to now with all of these been 'say no evil, do no evil'?

Remind yourself what you have been through and had the strength to endure; that the story of your life is fully told and your service completed; how often you have seen beauty, disregarded pleasure and pain, forgone glory, and been kind to the unkind."

B6 V13

"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 fish, this the dead body of a bird or a 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 that is no more than the friction of a membrane 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! This should be your practice throughout all your life: when things have such a plausible appearance, show them naked, see their shoddiness, strip away their own boastful account of themselves. Vanity is the greatest seducer of reason: when you are most convinced that your work is important, that is when you are most under its spell. See, for example, what Crates says even about Xenocrates."

B6 V19

Do not imagine that, if something is hard for you to achieve, it is therefore impossible for any man: but rather consider anything that is humanly possible and appropriate to lie within your own reach too.

B6 V21

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 own self-deception and ignorance.

B6 V29

Disgraceful if, in this life where your body does not fail, your soul should fail you first.

B6 V30

Take care not to be Caesarified, or dyed in purple: it happens. So keep yourself simple, good, pure, serious, unpretentious, a friend of justice, god-fearing, kind, full of affection, strong for your proper work. Strive hard to remain the same man that philosophy wished to make you. Revere the gods, look after men. Life is short. The one harvest of existence on earth is a godly habit of mind and social action.

Always as a pupil of Antoninus: his energy for all that was done according to reason, his constant equability, his piety, his serene expression, his gentleness, his lack of conceit, his drive to take a firm grasp of affairs. How he would never put anything at all aside without first looking closely into it and understanding it clearly; how he would tolerate those who unfairly blamed him without returning the blame; how he was never rushed in anything. He would not listen to malicious gossip; he was an accurate judge of men's character and actions; slow to criticize, immune to rumor and suspicion, devoid of pretense. How he was content with little by way of house, bed, dress, food, servants, his love of work, and his stamina.

He was a man to stay at the same task until evening, not even needing to relieve himself except at his usual hour, such was his frugal diet. Constant and fair in his friendships; tolerant of frank opposition to his own views, and delighted to be shown a better way; god-fearing, but not superstitious.

B7 V27

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. But at the same time you must be careful not to let your pleasure in them habituate you to dependency, to avoid distress if they are sometimes absent.

B7 V56

Imagine you are 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.

B7 64

Whenever you suffer pain, have ready to hand the thought that pain is a moral evil and does not harm your governing intelligence: pain can do no damage either to its rational or to its social nature. In most cases of pain you should be helped too by the saying of Epicurus: 'Pain is neither unendurable nor unending, as long as you remember its limits and do not exaggerate it in your imagination.' Remember too that many things we find disagreeable are the unrecognized analogues of pain - drowsiness, for example, oppressive heat, loss of appetite. So when you find yourself complaining of any of these, say to yourself, "You are giving in to pain.'

B7 V69

Perfection of character is this: to live each day as if it were last, without frenzy, without apathy, without pretense.

B8 V12

When you are reluctant to get up from your sleep, remind yourself that it is your constitution and man's nature to perform social acts, whereas sleep is something you share with dumb animals. Now what accords with the nature of each being is thereby the more closely related to it, the more in its essence and indeed the more to its liking.

B8 V51

Do not be dilatory in action, muddled in communication, or vague in thought. Don't let your mind settle into depression or elation. Allow some leasure in your life.

'They kill, they cut in pieces, they hunt with curses.'

What relevance has this to keeping your mind pure, sane and sober, just? As if a man were to come up to a spring of clear, sweet water and curse it - it would still continue to bubble up water good to drink. He could throw in mud or dung: in no time the spring will break it down, wash it away, and take no color from it. How then can you secure an everlasting spring and not a cistern? By keeping yourself at all times intent on freedom - and staying kind, and decent.

B9 V10

Man, god, and the universe all bear fruit, each in its own due season. No matter if common use confines the strict sense of 'bearing fruit' to vines and the like. Reason too has its fruit, both universal and particular; other things grow from it which share its own nature.

B11 V15

The rotten pretence of the man who says, "I prefer to be honest with you"! What ar you on about, man? No need for this preface - the reality will show. It should be written on your forehead, immediately clear in the tone of your voice and the light of your eyes, just as the loved one can immediately read all in the glance of his lovers. In short, the good and honest man should have the same effect as the unwashed - anyone close by as he passes detects the aura, willy-nilly, at once. Calculated honesty is a stiletto. There is nothing more degrading than the friendship of wolves: avoid that above all. The good, honest, kindly man has it in his eyes, and you cannot mistake him.

B11 V18 (4+9 especially)

First, How do I regard my relation to them, and the fact that we were all born for each other: and, turning the argument, that I was born to be their leader, as the ram leads his flock and the bull his herd? But start from first principles. If not atoms, then nature governing all: if so, then the lower in the interests of the higher, and the higher for each other.

Second. What sort of people they are at the table, in bed and so on. Most of all, what sort of behavior their opinions impose on them, and their complacent pride in acting as they do.

Third. If what they do is right, no cause for complaint. If wrong, this is clearly out of ignorance and not their wish. Just as no soul likes to be robbed of truth, so no soul wants to abandon the proper treatment of each individual as his worth deserves. At any rate these people resent the imputation of injustice, cruelty, selfishness - in a word, crimes against their neighbors.

Fourth. You yourself have many faults which are no different from them. If you do refrain from some wrongs you still have the proclivity to them, even if your restraint from wrongs like theirs is due to the fear or pursuit of public opinion, or some other such poor motive.

Fifth. You are not even sure that they are doing wrong. Many things are done as a part of a larger plan, and generally one needs to know a great deal before one can pronounce with certainty on another's action.

Sixth. When you are high in indignation and perhaps losing patience, remember that human life is a mere fragment of time and shortly we are all in our graves.

Seventh. It is not their actions which trouble us - because these lie in their own directing minds - but our judgements of the. Well, remove these judgements, make up your mind to dismiss your assessment of some supposed outrage, and your anger is gone. And how to remove them? By reflecting that no moral harm is caused you. If moral harm were not were not the only true harm, it would necessarily follow that you yourself are guilty of causing much harm, and become a robber, a rogue!

Eighth. The greater grief comes from the consequent anger and pain, rather than the original causes of our anger pain.

Ninth. Kindness is invincible - if it is sincere, not fawning or pretense. What can the most aggressive man do to you if you continue to be kind to him? If, as opportunity arises, you gently admonish him and take your time to re-educate him at the very moment when he is trying to do you harm? 'No, son, we were born for other purposes than this. There is no way that I can be harmed, but you are harming yourself, son.' And show him delicately how things are, making the general point that bees do not act like this, or any other creatures of gregarious nature. But your advice must not be ironic or critical. It should be affectionate, with no hurt feelings, not a lecture or a demonstration to impress others, but the way you would talk to someone by himself irrespective of company.

Keep these nine points in mind- take them as gifts from the Muses! - and begin at long last to be a human being, while life remains. You should avoid flattery as much as anger in your dealings with them: both are against the common good and lead to harm. In your fits of anger have this thought ready to mind, that there is nothing manly in being angry, but a gentle calm is both more human and therefore more virile. It is the gentle who have the strength, sinew, and courage - not the indulgent and complaining. The closer to control of emotion, the closer to power. Anger is as much a sign of weakness as is pain. Both have been wounded, and have surrendered.

B11 V29

In writing and reading you must learn before you can teach. Yet more so in life.

B12 V1

All that you pray to reach at some point in the circuit of your life can be yours now if you are generous to yourself. That is, if you leave all the past behind, entrust the future to Providence, and direct the present solely to reverence and justice. To reverence, so that you come to love your given lot: it was Nature that brought it to you and you to it. To justice, so that you are open and direct in word and action, speaking the truth, observing law and proposition in all you do. You should let nothing stand in your way; not the inequity of others, not what anyone else thinks or says, still less any sensation of this poor flesh tag has accreted round you: the afflicted part must see to its own concern.

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