written by
Renjit Philip

What I learnt from a long dead Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius

Philosophy 4 min read , May 13, 2020
Marcus Aurelius book cover
Meditations- Marcus Aurelius

Source of Succor

I managed to get hold of a copy of Marcus Aurelius's meditations (Penguin Classics edition) before the Coronavirus lockdown started. I have been reading it slowly and steadily, and I found that it has been quite helpful to manage the trials and tribulations of the lock down.

Who was he?

Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor who ruled from AD 121 to 180. His “Meditations” are regarded as an essential reading to anyone interested in know more about Stoicism. The diary of personal reflections was written to help the emperor navigate his own life and expand his understanding of the universe. The printed version of his reflections have been consulted by statesmen, thinkers and readers over the centuries since it was written. It was never meant to be published- it was used by the emperor for self reflection and understanding the world around him.

Essential Passages

I am sharing a number of the essential passages that struck a chord with me. I will quote the translation first and then explain what it means below the quote.

Passage 1:

"Pass through this brief patch of time in harmony with nature, and come to your final resting place gracefully, just as a ripened olive might drop, praising the earth that nourished it and grateful to the tree that gave it growth."

  • Live the short life that you have been granted with grace and with gratefulness. There is a lot of reference to being in harmony with nature and the world at large.

Passage 2:

"Live each day as if it were your last, not as if you had a thousand years to live"

  • This quote is attributed to many different authors and you will find it on many Instagram posts! Marcus is asking us: If today were your last day, would this day make you proud? Will this day be spent in the company of your family and friends? Will you die with regrets having not done the things that truly energized and motivated you?

Passage 3:

"Take a good hard look at people's ruling principle, especially of the wise, what they run away from, and what they seek out."

  • There is a lot to learn from the actions of wise people. Learn from their successes and failures. Read about the lives of people who are respected by others and learn from their acts, decisions and mistakes. I find biographies fit the bill here. One of the good ones that I read this year - “Poor Charlie’s Almanack”

Passage 4:

"We have the power to hold no opinion about a thing and not to let it upset our state of mind—for things have no natural power to shape our judgments."

and in a similar vein:

"You shouldn't give circumstances the power to rouse anger, for they don't care at all."

  • Marcus Aurelius says here that we have the power to treat an event as normal or abnormal. We can get angry, sad, disgusted or treat events for as they are. Maintaining an even keel gives us the ability to make superior decisions and to control our negative emotions.

Passage 5:

"Whenever someone has done wrong by you, immediately consider what notion of good or evil they had in doing it. For when you see that, you'll feel compassion instead of astonishment or rage."

  • The Emperor is exhorting us to understand why people do things that they do. Their upbringing, their notions, value systems influence their actions. When you understand the motivations, you start to understand their actions. Your response will get toned down, and you will empathize with them.

Passage 6:

"Your mind will take the shape of what you frequently hold in thought, for such impressions color the human spirit."

  • What you constantly think of will color your actions and behavior. There is a difference between fear avoidance and looking to take advantage of an opportunity that a situation presents.

Passage 7:

"That which isn't good for the hive isn't good for the bee."

  • You are a citizen of this world. If something is not suitable for the community at large, it cannot be ideal for you as an individual. There is an idea of community and being at one with nature and society that is central to stoicism and Marcus’s writing.

Passage 8:

"The person who does wrong, does wrong to themselves. The unjust person is unjust to themselves—making themselves evil."

  • When you do something wrong, rarely do you feel good. It often results in damage to your body and mind. Perhaps there is a short term pleasure, but the evil deed burns your body and soul inside out.

There are many more gems of philosophy contained within these pages. A recommended read if you want to delve deeper into philosophy and to cultivate a sense of calm however trying the external circumstances may turn out to be.

Sources Marcus Aurelius- Meditations translated by Martin Hammond (Penguin Classics) / The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday