Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations

I was perhaps too young to appreciate the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius when it was gifted to me as a young boy, and certainly too young to put his precepts into practice, but at the dawn of a new year – and, for me, a new decade – I’m endeavouring to audit my life, beginning with my thoughts. It is in this spirit of self-help (a grotesque but necessary idiom) that so many readers now encounter the wisdom of one of the greatest of Rome’s emperors, and though Marcus Aurelius certainly never would have anticipated this reaction to his little musings – he never intended them for publication – he would not have disapproved, for a democratic spirit pervades this book, one that declines to distinguish between slave and emperor, and insists, again and again, that the only meaningful comparisons to be made are between your past, present and future selves.

Part of the rationale for this egalitarian spirit comes from his view of men, who are both creatures of the flesh – and therefore subject to whim and impulse and desire – and beings endowed with Reason (“A little flesh, a little breath, and a Reason to rule all – that is myself”). Reason alone can intuit our higher purpose, or reconcile us to life’s suffering, and only Reason offers us a means to resist the animal passions that might otherwise overwhelm us. It likewise provides a kind of bulwark against fate, in that Aurelius insists, repeatedly, that events and people can only damage our external being, and the harm we perceive we experience to our inmost selves happens only with our own consent.

Outward things can touch the soul not a whit; they know no way into it, they have no power to sway or move it. By itself it sways and moves itself; it has its own self-approved standards of judgment, and to them it refers every experience.


If thou art pained by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.

Hamlet expresses a similar idea, more succinctly: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” This idea that the self-directed mind can overcome any pain, any destabilizing emotion, is one of the core tenets of Stoicism, and one of the major goals set forth in the Meditations. From such a perspective, anxiety about both the past and the present is illogical, these being outside of our control: “All of us are creatures of a day.”

This is not, however, an invitation to idleness, or to carefree enjoyment of life. On the contrary, Aurelius is ever strict with himself to discover what actions are in harmony with his being – what constitutes his “purpose” – and to pursue them “like a Roman and a man.”

At day’s first light have in readiness, against disinclination to leave your bed, the thought that “I am rising for the work of man.” Must I grumble at setting out to do what I was born for, and for the sake of which I have been brought into the world? Is this the purpose of my creation, to lie here under the blankets and keep myself warm? “Ah, but it is a great deal more pleasant!” Was it for pleasure, then, that you were born, and not for work, not for effort? Look at the plants, the sparrows, ants, spiders, bees, all busy at their own tasks, each doing his part towards a coherent world-order; and will you refuse man’s share of the work, instead of being prompt to carry out Nature’s bidding? “Yes, but one must have some repose as well.” Granted; but repose has its limits set by nature, in the same way as food and drink have; and you overstep these limits, you go beyond the point of sufficiency; while on the other hand, when action is in question, you stop short of what you could achieve.

It turns out even Roman emperors, veterans of the battlefields, struggle to leave their beds in the morning, tempted by the warmth of their sheets. What counts, Aurelius insists, is not the temptation, but the will to overcome it. So begins 2018.