Meditations - Book Summary and Highlights


By Marcus Aurelius

Rating: 10/10

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Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius was born in 121 AD and was the Roman emperor from 161 to his passing in 180, possibly from a plague. He was later referred to as the last of the Five Good Emperors, ruling over a time of relative peace and stability.

During his reign as Roman Emperor, Marcus, “the philosopher”, recorded private notes to himself, mainly focused on Stoicism. This collection of 12 books was not a documentation of Stoicism, but notes and guidelines based on Stoicism for his own self-improvement.

There are no indications that Marcus ever intended to publish his writings. It isn’t until the 10th century that historians find the first direct mention of these manuscripts, originally written in Koine Greek. It wasn’t until the 16th century that the text was translated to Latin and a century later to English.

The original manuscripts were lost after the initial Latin translation. Because of the age of the manuscripts and the various translations, first to Latin and then to English, we currently have various versions of Meditations, based on each author’s translation.

A marble bust of Marcus Aurelius


The stoic school of philosophy was founded by Zeno around 300 BC. It’s name comes from the Greek stoa (“porch”), where Zeno taught and lectured in Athens.

Stoics believe that the world is organized in a rational way. They refer to the “logos” as the force that controls and directs the world. The logos operate in individuals and in the universe, similar to “nature” or “God”.

While stoics believe that the logos determine all events, there is still human free will. They defined free will as a, “voluntary accommodation to what is inevitable.” For example, if a dog is tied to a car that starts moving forward, the dog has a choice to run along the car or the car can drag it. The dog has a choice, even though the outcome is the same (the dog moves with the car).

Zeno of Citium

Stoicism and the Meditations

A common theme throughout the Mediations is the doctrine of the three “disciplines”: perception, action, and the will. Perception requires we maintain objectivity of thought; that we see things as they are. Action relates to our relationship with other people. The will is our attitude to things not within our control.

Or as put my Marcus in Book 9 Passage 6; “Objective judgment… Unselfish action… Willing acceptance… of all external events.”

Highlighted Passages

What follows are the passages from Meditations that stood out to me and have had a profound effect on how I view the world. I encourage everyone to get a copy of Meditations and periodically pick a book within it to read on reflect on. This is not the type of literature you read once and put away. It is meant to be, as it was for Marcus Aurelius himself, guidelines and reminders that need periodic review.

Book 1 - Debts and Lessons

9 - Sextus ...To investigate and analyze, with understanding and logic, the principles we ought to live by. Not to display anger or other emotions. To be free of passion and yet full of love. To praise without bombast; to display expertise without pretension.

Book 2 - On the River Gran, Among the Quadi

6 - ...Everyone gets one life. Yours is almost used up, and instead of treating yourself with respect, you have entrusted your own happiness to the souls of others.

11 - You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think...

Book 3 - In Carnuntum

4 - Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people—unless it affects the common good. It will keep you from doing anything useful. You’ll be too preoccupied with what so-and-so is doing, and why, and what they’re saying, and what they’re thinking, and what they’re up to, and all the other things that throw you off and keep you from focusing on your own mind...

5 - How to act: Never under compulsion, out of selfishness, without forethought, with misgivings. Don’t gussy up your thoughts. No surplus words or unnecessary actions. Let the spirit in you represent a man, an adult, a citizen, a Roman, a ruler. Taking up his post like a soldier and patiently awaiting his recall from life. Needing no oath or witness. Cheerfulness. Without requiring other people’s help. Or serenity supplied by others. To stand up straight—not straightened.

10 - Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it: Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see. The span we live is small—small as the corner of the earth in which we live it. Small as even the greatest renown, passed from mouth to mouth by short-lived stick figures, ignorant alike of themselves and those long dead.

11 - ...always to define whatever it is we perceive—to trace its outline—so we can see what it really is: its substance. Stripped bare. As a whole. Unmodified. And to call it by its name—the thing itself and its components, to which it will eventually return...

Book 4

6 - That sort of person is bound to do that. You might as well resent a fig tree for secreting juice. (Anyway, before very long you’ll both be dead—dead and soon forgotten.)

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

18 - The tranquillity that comes when you stop caring what they say. Or think, or do. Only what you do...

24 - ...Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary?”...

39 - Nothing that goes on in anyone else’s mind can harm you. Nor can the shifts and changes in the world around you. —Then where is harm to be found? In your capacity to see it. Stop doing that and everything will be fine...

Book 5

24 - Remember: Matter. How tiny your share of it. Time. How brief and fleeting your allotment of it. Fate. How small a role you play in it.

Book 6

6 - The best revenge is not to be like that.

Book 7

4 - Focus on what is said when you speak and on what results from each action. Know what the one aims at, and what the other means.

54 - Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option: to accept this event with humility to treat this person as he should be treated to approach this thought with care, so that nothing irrational creeps in.

71 - It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own.

Book 8

36 - Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?” You’ll be embarrassed to answer...

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

Book 9

6 - Objective judgment, now, at this very moment. Unselfish action, now, at this very moment. Willing acceptance—now, at this very moment—of all external events. That’s all you need.

Book 10

3 - 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.

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

29 - Stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and ask yourself: Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore?

37 - Learn to ask of all actions, “Why are they doing that?” Starting with your own.

Book 11

18 - ...When you lose your temper, or even feel irritated: that human life is very short. Before long all of us will be laid out side by side...

Book 12

3 - Your three components: body, breath, mind. Two are yours in trust; to the third alone you have clear title...

4 - It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.

6 - Practice even what seems impossible...

17 - If it’s not right, don’t do it. If it’s not true, don’t say it...

22 - It’s all in how you perceive it. You’re in control. You can dispense with misperception at will, like rounding the point. Serenity, total calm, safe anchorage.

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