I’m reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations in Marcus Aurelius and His Times (Transition from Paganism to Christianity) .
Meditations is extraordinary because it is his personal journal - Aurelius wrote it without knowing it would be shared someday. These are the private thoughts of a Roman emperor, and I find it very insightful that this man struggles with the same philosophical and lifestyle problems that I have (though he seems to have figured out some of the solutions).
Here are my thoughts and the passages I noted while reading, from parts I-IV.
I referenced the passages using the book/passage numbers in . Thanks to MIT’s Internet Classics Archive  for providing the full text in digital form.
Note: Part I is Aurelius’s Grammy nomination speech - thanking everyone including his father, friends, and the gods. Because of this, most of the notable passages in this article come from parts II-IV.
Living a life of a cheater, who acts one way in one time and another way in another time, can seem like the optimal strategy compared to the “goody two-shoes”. If I can cheat to get what I want when the risk is justified, I’ll still be free of consequence.
I see these passages as Aurelius’s argument that a consistently moral life, a steady life, with “perfect and simple dignity, …affection, and freedom, and justice”, is a better strategy for happiness. This is because it’s simpler than a duplicitous life, yet sufficient. A man never knows when he will die, so it is necessary to walk uprightly in every moment in order to be truly free.
Every moment think steadily as a Roman and a man to do what thou hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and feeling of affection, and freedom, and justice; and to give thyself relief from all other thoughts. And thou wilt give thyself relief, if thou doest every act of thy life as if it were the last, laying aside all carelessness and passionate aversion from the commands of reason, and all hypocrisy, and self-love, and discontent with the portion which has been given to thee. Thou seest how few the things are, the which if a man lays hold of, he is able to live a life which flows in quiet, and is like the existence of the gods; for the gods on their part will require nothing more from him who observes these things.
…a man should use himself to think of those things only about which, if one should suddenly ask, What hast thou now in thy thoughts? With perfect openness thou mightest, immediately answer, This or That; so that from thy words it should be plain that everything in thee is simple and benevolent, and such as befits a social animal, and one that cares not for thoughts about pleasure or sensual enjoyments at all, nor has any rivalry or envy and suspicion, or anything else for which thou wouldst blush if thou shouldst say that thou hadst it in thy mind.
Never value anything as profitable to thyself which shall compel thee to break thy promise, to lose thy self-respect, to hate any man, to suspect, to curse, to act the hypocrite, to desire anything which needs walls and curtains…
Time and death
Aurelius urges one to think that there is no difference between living one more day and a thousand more years. How can this be, since I want to have a good life and a happy life?
The argument is driven by the following metaphysical beliefs:
- Man lives only once (II.14).
- All things break apart into atoms, and this is not a bad thing (IV.5) because it is according to nature (II.17).
Aurelius urges people to live as if his argument and its premises were true. However, his argument leans heavily on his perception of the world. If the metaphysics were not true, would the arguments still stand? Either way, it is good to exercise caution against living in the past or living only for the future.
Though thou shouldst be going to live three thousand years, and as many times ten thousand years, still remember that no man loses any other life than this which he now lives, nor lives any other than this which he now loses. The longest and shortest are thus brought to the same. …For a man cannot lose either the past or the future: for what a man has not, how can any one take this from him? These two things then thou must bear in mind; the one, that all things from eternity are of like forms and come round in a circle, and that it makes no difference whether a man shall see the same things during a hundred years or two hundred, or an infinite time; and the second, that the longest liver and he who will die soonest lose just the same. For the present is the only thing of which a man can be deprived, if it is true that this is the only thing which he has, and that a man cannot lose a thing if he has it not.
…he who has preferred to everything intelligence and daemon and the worship of its excellence, acts no tragic part, does not groan, will not need either solitude or much company; and, what is chief of all, he will live without either pursuing or flying from death; but whether for a longer or a shorter time he shall have the soul inclosed in the body, he cares not at all: for even if he must depart immediately, he will go as readily as if he were going to do anything else which can be done with decency and order; taking care of this only all through life, that his thoughts turn not away from anything which belongs to an intelligent animal and a member of a civil community.
Aurelius states bluntly that pain is only an opinion, a state of mind. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
This is driven by the combination of two metaphysical claims:
- Nothing is evil which is according to nature. (II.17).
- All is atoms and deterministic according to nature (IV.5).
Things only happen as they are meant to happen. Things cannot affect the soul; my opinion that it has hurt me is the thing which “does violence to the soul”.
Interestingly, as the same time I was reading this, my wife also read The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson . As she shared what she got from the book, we realized that in many ways, that book argues for a modern (and spicier-worded) version of the Stoic philosophy. Instead of chasing pleasure, one should chase happiness and by doing so, cease to give a fuck about things that don’t matter. Manson doesn’t quite identify the object of happiness but leaves as a general sense of “being a good person”, while Aurelius identifies Stoic virtue (defined in a concrete sense as alignment with nature, tightly bound to Stoic metaphysics) as the object of his happiness. In my mind, this may be a reflection of the difference between the two eras (postmodern vs. early A.D.’s), or a difference in audience (bestseller vs. journal).
This principle is mostly useful to remember as I face another person who I believe has wronged me. I should realize that though they are a person, they are only acting in accordance to his nature, and that I can choose to be hurt by it or I can choose to “take away the complaint”, recognizing that it has not made me worse.
Remember to retire into this little territory of thy own, and above all do not distract or strain thyself, but be free, and look at things as a man, as a human being, as a citizen, as a mortal. But among the things readiest to thy hand to which thou shalt turn, let there be these, which are two. One is that things do not touch the soul, for they are external and remain immovable; but our perturbations come only from the opinion which is within. The other is that all these things, which thou seest, change immediately and will no longer be; and constantly bear in mind how many of these changes thou hast already witnessed. The universe is transformation: life is opinion.
Take away thy opinion, and then there is taken away the complaint, “I have been harmed.” Take away the complaint, “I have been harmed,” and the harm is taken away. That which does not make a man worse than he was, also does not make his life worse, nor does it harm him either from without or from within.
Do not have such an opinion of things as he has who does thee wrong, or such as he wishes thee to have, but look at them as they are in truth. (This truth is that everything which happens, happens according to nature, described further in IV.10-11.)
The Stoic philosophy is heavily founded on its metaphysics concerning nature, virtue, and determinism. Because of this, I am not sure whether it’s compatible with the true nature of the world or my view of the world. However, I find that Aurelius’s advice on how to live is practical and timeless, and I strive to embody portions of the Stoic attitude in my life.
 Aurelius, M., Justin, Edman, I., Lucian, & Pater, W. (1945). Marcus Aurelius and his times; the transition from Paganism to Christianity, comprising Marcus Aurelius: Meditation; Lucian: Hermotimus, Icaromenippus; Justin Martyr: Dialogue with Trypho, First Apology; Walter Pater: Marius the Epicurean (selections). Published for the Classics Club by Walter J. Black inc. Roslyn, N.Y.
 The Internet Classics Archive: The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. The Internet Classics Archive | The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. (n.d.). Retrieved June 3, 2022, from http://classics.mit.edu/Antoninus/meditations.html
 Manson, M. (2016). The subtle art of not giving a fuck: A counterintuitive approach to living a good life. HarperOne.