Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is often found on lists of the most influential philosophical texts of all time, and for good reason. Written for his own personal use rather than for publication, this text gives us the opportunity to peer into the mind of a powerful Roman emperor, Stoic thinker, and great man.
It’s believed that this life-changing book was written between 171 and 175 AD while the emperor was on a campaign in central Europe. Even though the words were written in Koine Greek nearly two thousand years ago, the notes Aurelius writes to himself still have a deep resonance with people in the modern age.
Everyone from Theodore Roosevelt and John Steinbeck to Bill Clinton and James Mattis sought guidance from this seminal text, and the words of the last of Rome’s Five Good Emperors have found a new audience among those engaged in the growing practice of modern Stoicism.
Are you wondering what you can expect to find in Meditations? Are you looking for a guide to help you navigate the central themes in this text? Stick with us while we take a look at a summary of an incredible and timeless classic work.
Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor from 161 to 180 AD as well as a Stoic philosopher. Born during the reign of Hadrian as the nephew of the emperor, he was raised by his mother and his grandfather after his father died when he was three.
He was then adopted by Antonius Pius, his uncle, who had been named the new heir of Hadrian after his adoptive son died.
When Hadrian died during the same year, it meant that Marcus Aurelius was now heir to the throne. He was married to Antoninus’s daughter in 145.
Aurelius became the emperor along with his adoptive brother, Lucius Verus, in 161. It was a time of heavy military conflict in the Roman Empire, increased persecution of Christians, and, in 165 or 166, a plague that caused the deaths of five to ten million people.
Aurelius never adopted an heir of his own, unlike many of his predecessors.
In addition to his role as emperor, Marcus Aurelius is best known for his Meditations. This book wasn’t written with the purpose of being published, but instead is a series of notes the emperor wrote to himself regarding how best to act, think, and live.
As the last of the Five Good Emperors of Rome, his reign as emperor marked the end of a period of good government and internal peace in the empire. Shortly after he died in 180, descent into civil war began.
Marcus Aurelius has long been a symbol of the Golden Age of the Roman Empire, and his Meditations has inspired many great and notable historical figures in the last two thousand years.
Meditations most likely wasn’t ever intended to be published by its author. In fact, the title is one of many that have simply been assigned to the text because Marcus Aurelius didn’t give it one himself.
Rather than being written in the form of a complete book, Meditations is a series of quotations that range from one short sentence to lengthy paragraphs.
Broken down into 12 books, Aurelius wrote these notes to himself as a source for his own self-improvement and guidance. Some or all of it is believed to have been written while he was out on military campaigns.
While the books aren’t in chronological order, each book chronicles a different period in the author’s life. It is written in a straightforward style and reflects the thoughts of a man that is working through how best to act, think, and live while handling his responsibilities as an emperor and a man.
Meditations is a book that is full of useful teachings and actionable advice that transcends time.
There are a lot of different translations of Meditations, and it’s worth doing some research before just picking up the first copy you find.
This is because the translations vary greatly regarding their readability in our modern day. Many people find the most accessible translation to be by Gregory Hays, who manages to maintain the poetry of the text while writing in plain modern English.
One of the reasons that this is a popular translation is because of the useful notes attached to the text. In the book, there are a lot of references that we might not catch as modern readers that would be more obvious to historians, philosophers, or people that lived during a different age. For example, many of the notes that Aurelius writes to himself are actually quotes from other great minds, rather than original words of his own.
If you’re looking for a free translation of Meditations, a good choice would be that by George Long. Some people might choose to look through this version before deciding to purchase the Hays translation to help get a sense of what the book contains.
Meditations isn’t organized by theme, but there are a number of primary ideas that come up over and over again. One can almost imagine him sitting and writing as a part of his Stoic practice and having the same ideas occur to him over time, with him putting them down in words to help drive home their importance.
Notably, the first book of Meditations consists of Aurelius listing out the people that have influenced his life positively and describing what he learned from them. In particular, he highlights the individuals that helped him to integrate the beliefs and traits of a good Stoic.
The book particularly highlights a number of ideas, including:
Aurelius continuously comes back to the idea that “the universe is change.” At the same time, while nature’s job is “constant alteration,” he writes that “there’s nothing new here. Everything is familiar.”
Change is constantly occurring all around us, whether we want to recognize it or not. At the same time, there are endlessly repeating patterns when you’re able to obtain a bird’s eye view on the affairs of humans.
He writes that we should “look on all things earthly as though from some point far avoid, upon herds, armies, and agriculture, marriages and divorces, births and deaths, the claim our of law courts, deserted wastes, alien peoples of every kind, festivals, lamentations, and markets…”
To Aurelius, change is a reality of life that we must accept. At the same time, we are watching the cycles of nature and history play out over and over again.
“Constant awareness that everything is born from change. The knowledge that there is nothing nature loves more than to alter what exists and make new things like it. All that exists is the seed of what will emerge from it. You think the only seeds are the ones that make plants or children? Go deeper.” – Marcus Aurelius
Another major theme in Meditations is that of acceptance.
We must accept the course of nature, we must accept the reality of death. Beyond that, we must accept the misdeeds of others rather than wishing they were other than they are.
“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.” – Marcus Aurelius
As opposed to the Epicureans, who thought that the universe was basically random, the Stoics believed that nature and the universe were rational and ordered. Aurelius keeps coming back to the notion of destiny and fate being something we carry with us and that carries us at the same time.
“What happens to each of us is ordered. It furthers our destiny.” – Marcus Aurelius
The founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium, is quoted as having said that “the goal of life is living in accordance with Nature.”
The Stoic concept of nature encompassed far more than our current notion of the term, as it included both the nature of the universe and the nature of human beings.
Aurelius repeatedly discusses the concept of nature, and the way that we as humans fit into it. To live a good life, one must “do what’s proper to your nature and accept what the world’s nature has in store.”
“Each of us needs what nature gives us, when nature gives it.” – Marcus Aurelius
Modern Stoicism often leaves out discussion about the gods or God in the works of the ancient Stoics. It would be unfair, though, to discuss the key themes in Meditations without mentioning the topic, considering that Aurelius states that “they (the gods) do exist, they do care what happens to us, and everything a person needs to avoid real harm they have placed within him.”
“Nothing earthly succeeds by ignoring heaven, nothing heavenly by ignoring the earth.” – Marcus Aurelius
In Meditations, Aurelius is both analyzing himself and instructing himself. He writes almost as if he is his own parent, telling himself how best to be. He asks himself to interrogate himself and find out what kind of soul he has and what lives in his mind.
An important theme in Stoic thought is that we have what we need inside ourselves if we only look for it. Aurelius reflects this concept repeatedly, saying that “…all you have to do is to be attentive to the power inside you and worship it sincerely.”
“Things have no hold on the soul. They have no access to it, cannot move or direct it. It is moved and directed by itself alone. It takes the things before it and interprets them as it sees fit.” – Marcus Aurelius
Logos is a fairly complex philosophical concept that is found in ancient Greek philosophy, Christianity, Islam, Neoplatonism, Jung’s analytical psychology, and other religions and schools of thought. It is often translated to mean something along the lines of “reasoning” or “logic.”
To the Stoics, the active reason that pervades and animates the Universe is the logos.
“To follow the logos in all things is to be relaxed and energetic, joyful and serious at once.” – Marcus Aurelius
The Stoics saw that everything in the universe is connected to each other in a sort of web. In Meditations, Aurelius states that “everything is interwoven, and the web is holy.”
“The world as a living being—one nature, one soul. Keep that in mind. And how everything feeds into that single experience, moves with a single motion. And how everything helps produce everything else. Spun and woven together.” – Marcus Aurelius
Not only are we all interconnected, but everything that exists is simply a part of a greater whole. It is particularly remarkable that Aurelius had this perspective and constantly reminded himself of it, considering that he was the most powerful man in the world at the time– the emperor of Rome.
“Whatever the nature of the whole does, and whatever serves to maintain it, is good for every part of nature.” – Marcus Aurelius
It’s easy to feel frustrated with others throughout the day. Maybe we even want to retreat to some kind of hermit-like solitude where no one will bother us ever again.
Aurelius notes, though, that “all of us are working on the same project,” and that we’re all, essentially, in this together.
“We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural.” – Marcus Aurelius
One major theme that Aurelius touches upon over and over is how to deal with other people. He doesn’t have a rosy or overly-optimistic view of others– it’s clear that he’s had to deal with a lot of individuals that he found to be deeply frustrating.
However, he implores himself to remember that the people around him are human, and he is human, too. That they make mistakes and that he has made mistakes. If you can understand that other people's misdeeds simply result from their own ignorance and that you’ll both die before too long, it can help you zoom out and have more compassion for others.
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine.” – Marcus Aurelius
To Aurelius, it’s clear that we all have a purpose here in life. It is a part of our place in Nature, in the order of the Universe. We’re all here for a reason– not just humans, but “everything… from horses to vine shoots.”
“People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward are wasting their time—even when hard at work.” – Marcus Aurelius
The Stoics believed that one could live a good life by acting virtuously. He is a spirit that is very concerned with what it means to be a good man and actually following through and being one. He states that the life of a good man looks like this” someone content with what nature assigns him, and satisfied with being just and kind himself.”
“The only thing that isn’t worthless: to live this life out truthfully and rightly. And be patient with those who don’t.” – Marcus Aurelius
Meditations is a great Stoic text to read if you’re looking for a more poetic and personal discussion on virtue versus some of the other ancient Stoic works. Aurelius repeatedly talks about the fact that you are hurting yourself if you do harm. At the same time, nothing can harm you if it doesn’t negatively impact your character.
“The elements move upward, downward, in all directions. The motion of virtue is different—deeper. It moves at a steady pace on a road hard to discern, and always forward.” – Marcus Aurelius
Another focus in the book is spiritual growth. Aurelius talks about how we need to analyze everything that happens to us logically and accurately. Doing so makes it possible to grow spiritually.
“How they all change into one another—acquire the ability to see that. Apply it constantly; use it to train yourself. Nothing is as conducive to spiritual growth.” – Marcus Aurelius
Aurelius tells himself to “stop allowing your mind to be a slave” and to continuously train his mind and thoughts. In Book 9, he discusses the need to get rid of “most of the junk that clutters your mind… and clear out space for yourself.” He goes on to say that you can do this by zooming out and getting perspective about the infinite nature of time, the scale of the world, and the rate at which things change.
“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.” – Marcus Aurelius
One of the ideas that have really taken hold in modern Stoic thought is the concept that you can control how you think and perceive the world. From the Stoic perspective, our perceptions are what disturb us, not external things or events in themselves.
“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.” – Marcus Aurelius
Aurelius is frequently telling himself that he can consciously choose how he reacts to occurrences and the attitude he carries with him. If you don’t interpret something as harmful to you, Marcus says, then it doesn’t hurt you at all.
"I can control my thoughts as necessary; then how can I be troubled? What is outside my mind means nothing to it. Absorb that lesson and your feet stand firm. You can return to life. Look at things as you did before. And life returns.” – Marcus Aurelius
Another repeating theme is that of responsibility and the essential nature of human actions. He states that if he fails to live as nature requires, it’s solely his fault even though he was helped by the gods through help, inspiration, and gifts.
“To stop talking about what the good man is like, and just be one.” – Marcus Aurelius
It’s amazing how much time you can recover when you stop worrying about other people’s opinions. You can’t control what other people think, and it’s, therefore, a waste of time to focus so much of your energy in that direction.
“It never ceases to amaze me: We all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.” – Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius truly believes in the Stoic notion that living a virtuous life is the path to a happy life. While we are interconnected with each other and a part of a larger whole, he states that “our will rules its own domain.” We, therefore, create our own happiness and fulfillment.
“If you do the job in a principled way, with diligence, energy and patience, if you keep yourself free of distractions, and keep the spirit inside you undamaged, as if you might have to give it back at any moment— If you can embrace this without fear or expectation—can find fulfillment in what you’re doing now, as Nature intended, and in superhuman truthfulness (every word, every utterance)—then your life will be happy. No one can prevent that.” – Marcus Aurelius
Aurelius writes quite a bit about fear, anger, and anxiety. He discusses discarding anxiety during a particular day through the recognition that it came from within himself rather than outside. He talks about his only fear being doing something that is against human nature, and that there’s usually always a better reaction to events than anger.
“The first step: Don’t be anxious. Nature controls it all. And before long you’ll be no one, nowhere.” – Marcus Aurelius
Another common theme in the book is that the obstacles we face actually become the fuel we use to achieve our goals. Ryan Holiday of The Daily Stoic wrote an entire book on the topic: The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumph.
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” – Marcus Aurelius
The Stoics were big believers in the fact that a person doesn’t need much to live a satisfying life. Aurelius speaks of doing only what’s essential– “to do less, better.”
“Take the shortest route, the one that nature planned—to speak and act in the healthiest way. Do that, and be free of pain and stress, free of all calculation and pretension.” – Marcus Aurelius
Marcus reflects often on figures that lived before him and the cyclical nature of history. Though the Universe is change, history is also a series of repeating patterns.
“Everything has always been the same, and keeps recurring, and it makes no difference whether you see the same things recur in a hundred years or two hundred, or in an infinite period.” – Marcus Aurelius
It’s easy to get caught up in the past or the future. Marcus Aurelius reminds us that the present is all we have. When we die, the present moment is the only thing we lose. He says that “each of us lives only now, this brief instant.”
“Give yourself a gift: the present moment.” – Marcus Aurelius
Though I’m listing this as the last common theme in Meditations, death is one of the most prominently mentioned topics in the text. He is constantly reminding himself that “human lives are brief and trivial” and that the great men of history died just like everyone else.
It was important to him to accept death and to not fear it.
Rather than viewing death with impatience, indifference, or disdain, we should view it as “one of the things that happens to us.”
He also talks quite a bit about the fact that if you are conscious of the fact that you will die, it will positively impact how you live your life.
Though it might not seem pleasant to think about passing on from this world, the Stoics believed that meditating on our own death was an essential spiritual practice.
“Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.” – Marcus Aurelius
One of the great things about Stoicism is that it was originally intended, so many years ago, as a practical philosophy. This means that reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius isn’t just a way to learn some heady concepts that you can impress your friends with the next time you go to the bar. Instead, the book is filled with ideas that can help inform the way you live your everyday life.
This text encourages you to gain a cosmic perspective on the world and existence in addition to analyzing your own self and judgments. You'll find that through this window into the mind and soul of the Roman emperor, the path to your own mind and soul becomes a bit more illuminated.
Many people recommend reading Meditations over and over again, rather than working your way through it once and moving on. The reason for this is that you will find that you discover new insights every time you read it. At the same time, you will be in a different stage of life when you pick it up again, and you’ll find that you are able to continue to draw valuable information with each reading that helps you navigate the troubling task of being alive.
One of the reasons that Stoicism has gained popularity again in recent years is because of its ability to help people reduce their anxiety and live a good life in a chaotic world. The ancient Stoics lived in a time of change just as we do, and they had to figure out how best to live just as we do.
While Marcus Aurelius does a particularly good job of presenting the ideas of Stoicism poetically and personally, there are a lot of great Stoic thinkers to learn from. Not all of the Stoics agreed on absolutely everything, and it’s worthwhile to work through the ideas of all of the major thinkers (and even some minor ones) to help you in your quest to live the best life you can.
If you’re looking for more resources on Stoicism, you’ve come to the right place. Be sure to check out our growing library of articles on StoicQuotes.com.