“Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius

Meditations -of Marcus Aurelius

  • DougInNC book report
  • “More than a Review”

“What WERE you thinking?” Such an inquiry arises daily … usually as rhetoric … rarely answered. Fascinatingly, in this compilation of “Meditations,” the question is answered by Emperor Marcus Aurelius. From nearly 2000 years ago, we have his own (translated) words, a penetrating, insightful, recorded litany of what drove the man and who he strove to be.

While ruling the great empire and fighting the northern hordes, Marcus captured his unequivocal ruminations. For this is not a history of battles, or Rome. It is, per the introduction, “… the innermost thoughts of his heart, set down to ease it, with such moral maxims and reflections as may help him to bear the burden of duty …”.

It’s the second century! Yet we have this (direct) personal record of one born in A.D. 121, emperor in 161, dead in 180. This is on par with getting the history of the Second World War in Churchill’s books. But M.A. delivers at-the-moment pondering while W.C. writes in review of actual events (which he could then bias in his favor).

The language of “Meditations” is not modern; the construct is not storytelling. Starting with “His First Book, concerning Himself,” the chapters number twelve, and within each are brief thoughts that range from a few words to two pages before another idea is captured. Beyond the first, no chapter sticks with a single topic. The format is very much “Dear Diary, here is what engrossed my mind today.”

Cover: Marcus Aurelius Meditations

Cover: Marcus Aurelius Meditations

Meditations sample page

Meditations sample page, Sixth Book

He writes the thoughts that guide his life, starting that First Book with what he assimilated from members of his family and those closest to him: “Whensoever thou wilt rejoice thyself, think and meditate upon those good parts and especial gifts, which thou hast observed in any of them …”.

The perspective of “Meditations” is strictly Stoicism, trained as he was from childhood in that philosophy. Thus he holds in highest regard the natural world and the social order, saying both “all things … come to pass according to the nature and general condition of the universe” (Eighth Book) and “Society therefore is the proper good of a rational creature” (Fifth Book). He aspires to continually build self-reliance, and he tests his thinking against the teachings of Plato, Socrates, Diogenes, or the Epicureans.

Female readers rejoice! This ancient thinker posits his own brain as a feminine member saying, “… as for my mind, all things which are not within the verge of her own operation, are indifferent unto her” (Sixth Book). And, “…in those things that properly belong unto the mind, she cannot be hindered by any man” (Eighth Book).

The introduction and first chapter are necessary sections to become acclimated to the climate of this writing and the person. The second and third books are brief. The fourth and sixth were found to have the greatest number of interesting insights. The seventh book shone with philosophical nuggets. The eighth contained many prescient thoughts on living a good life. Book ten trends toward thoughts regarding death.

Each chapter has dissertation the reader might wish to adopt for themselves or put forward toward others. Each has gems as pertinent for a modern time as they were for the ancient time. An item from “Meditations” was used in a contemporary book that I was reading simultaneously, The Russian Galatea by North Carolina author Ira David Wood III.

While quotable in many cases, do not expect poetry from the man who writes, “Affect not to set out thy thoughts with curious neat language” (Third Book). I list a large number of passages at the end of this book report.

The time setting is after Christ, but Christian thought is not paramount. Christians were a meddlesome lot for the emperor, trying to change the natural order with their views. Roman life was guided by many “Gods,” manifestations of the natural universe which was the supreme God for Marcus Aurelius.

Christian ideals overlapped with these, the introduction claiming many of Marcus’ “thoughts sound like far-off echoes of St. Paul.” The contrast between “Meditations” and many books of the Bible, I would say, is that the latter would tend to prescribe “how to live” while the former is more “how to think” about one’s life.

The man and the work are an open book, which to him is a worthy goal for all: “… pierce and penetrate … every one’s understanding as also to make the estate of thine own open, and penetrable to any other” (Eighth Book).

A careful review finds inconsistencies. While praising his teacher for providing the example of “whatsoever he did, that he did it with a good intent,” (First Book) Marcus is later dismissive of ‘passion’ (intent): “… neither doth the true good or evil of a reasonable charitable man consist in passion, but in operation and action” (Ninth Book).

I heard about this book from a prolific book blogger. I read it after visiting Rome in 2019, where I found the emperor waving from horseback in the plaza of Musei Capitolini (photo below).

If the quotes below draw you in, get your ‘M.A.’ degree by reading “Meditations” from M. Aurelius.

Meditations sample page

Marcus Aurelius says hello; Rome, Italy May 2019

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Many Selected Quotes
>>> with notes from DougInNC added thusly
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Quote describing what sounds like nirvana of the mind for Marcus Aurelius:

certain knowledge of every particular object according to its true nature (Tenth Book)

Quote for dealing with TMI (too much information, typical of DougInNC book reports!):

Let not thy mind wander up and down, and heap together in her thoughts the many troubles and grievous calamities which thou art as subject unto as any other (Eighth Book)

Quote for those with short attention spans (who aren’t likely to have read this far!):

Use thyself when any man speaks unto thee, so to hearken unto him, as that in the interim thou give not way to any other thoughts; that so thou mayst (as far as is possible) seem fixed and fastened to his very soul, whosoever he be that speaks unto thee. (Sixth Book)

Quote for those clinging to social media:

Now much time and leisure doth he gain, who is not curious to know what his neighbour hath said, or hath done, or hath attempted, but only what he doth himself, that it may be just and holy? (Fourth Book)

Quote for those enamored by stars in Hollywood and in sports:

The ambitious supposeth another man’s act, praise and applause, to be his own happiness; … but he that is wise, his own action. (Sixth Book)

Quote for introverts:

it is in thy power to retire into thyself, and to be at rest (Fourth Book)

Quotes for writers:

so of words must we be as ready, to consider of every one what is the true meaning, and signification of it according to truth and nature, however it be taken in common use. (Seventh Book)
>>> for those who find words fungible, such as “literally means figuratively”

Make it not any longer a matter of dispute or discourse, what are the signs and proprieties of a good man, but really and actually to be such. (Tenth Book)
>>> Show, not tell

Quotes useful for politicians, even today:

Spend not the remnant of thy days in thoughts and fancies concerning other men, when it is not in relation to some common good, (Third Book)

If it be not fitting, do it not. If it be not true, speak it not. (Twelfth Book)

speak that which seemeth unto thee most just: only speak it kindly, modestly, and without hypocrisy. (Eighth Book)

how miraculously things contrary one to another, concur to the beauty and perfection of this universe. (Seventh Book)
>>> “Why can’t we all just get along” (Rodney King, 1992)

Quotes regarding fate and chance:
>>> While outcomes are fated, daily life is full of random “chance”

Whatsoever it be that happens unto thee, it is that which from all time was appointed unto thee. (Tenth Book)

my particular share of the common chances of the world. (Tenth Book)

Quotes to weigh action versus intent:

As virtue and wickedness consist not in passion, but in action; so neither doth the true good or evil of a reasonable charitable man consist in passion, but in operation and action. (Ninth Book)

as thou seest any man do anything, presently (if it be possible) to say unto thyself, What is this man’s end in this his action? (Tenth Book)

Quotes saying it’s okay to seek help with your thoughts:

What now is to be done, if thou mayest search and inquiry into that, what needs thou care for more? And if thou art well able to perceive it alone, let no man divert thee from it. But if alone thou doest not so well perceive it, suspend thine action, and take advice (Tenth Book)

though we are all made one for another, yet have our minds and understandings each of them their own proper and limited jurisdiction. For else another man’s wickedness might be my evil which God would not have, that it might not be in another man’s power to make me unhappy (Eighth Book)

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Quotes that relate to quips and quotes found elsewhere:
>>> with notes from DougInNC added thusly
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“Bless his heart”

… as said in the South …

conveyed multiple ways

We all work to one effect, some willingly, and with a rational apprehension of what we do: others without any such knowledge. (Sixth Book)
>>> we are all part of the social order, whether with clarity of purpose or not

Either teach them better if it be in thy power; or if it be not, remember that for this use, to bear with them patiently, was mildness and goodness granted unto thee. (Ninth Book)
>>> be tolerant of the weak-minded

how shall even the most fierce and malicious that thou shalt conceive, be able to hold on against thee, if thou shalt still continue meek and loving unto him; (Eleventh Book)
>>> be tolerant, of the strong as well as the meek

“fame is fleeting”

so “be humble”

Receive temporal blessings without ostentation, when they are sent and thou shalt be able to part with them with all readiness and facility when they are taken from thee again. (Eighth Book)

Unto him that is a man, thou hast done a good turn: doth not that suffice thee? What thy nature required, that hast thou done. Must thou be rewarded for it? (Ninth Book)

“go forth and multiply”
hmm… ‘clarified’ to be
about thoughts also

Reason is of a diffusive nature, what itself is in itself, it begets in others, and so doth multiply. (Ninth Book)

“be an open book”

(and be open yourself)

To pierce and penetrate into the estate of every one’s understanding that thou hast to do with: as also to make the estate of thine own open, and penetrable to any other. (Eighth Book)

“mind over matter”

as long as I conceive no such thing, that that which is happened is evil, I have no hurt; and it is in my power not to conceive any such thing. (Seventh Book)

he speaketh ill of thee, so much is reported. But that thou art hurt thereby, is not reported: that is the addition of opinion, which thou must exclude. (Eighth Book)
>>>do not allow the mind to make a matter out of something that is not

“opposites attract”

how miraculously things contrary one to another, concur to the beauty and perfection of this universe. (Seventh Book)

“Que será, será”

Whatsoever it be that happens unto thee, it is that which from all time was appointed unto thee. (Tenth Book)

“see things as they are”

thou must use to keep thyself to the first motions and apprehensions of things, as they present themselves outwardly; and add not unto them from within thyself through mere conceit and opinion. (Eighth Book)

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Quotes that relate to other interests of DougInNC:
>>> with his notes added thusly
= = = = = = = = = = =

“must needs be” (Ninth Book)

>>> a likable archaic phrase for DougInNC, nearly forgotten

“If no man shall think himself wronged, then is there no more any such thing as wrong.” (Fourth Book)

>>> DougInNC finds great contrast with contemporary belief that hurt/pain only requires the feeling that one has been wronged
>>> reference the book “The Grand Inquisitor”

‘For thou art born a mere slave, to thy senses and brutish affections;’ destitute without teaching of all true knowledge and sound reason. (Eleventh Book)… and
… “He is a true fugitive, that flies from reason.” (Fourth Book)

>>> DougInNC, circa 1980:
“Better to be a slave to Reason
than to live in fear of it.”

“As the ordinary shows of the theatre and of other such places, when thou art presented with them, affect thee; … When then will there be an end?” (Sixth Book)

>>> does this address those like DougInNC who view Hamilton, The Musical seven times … and counting? -ha!

“to endure but for a while, is common unto all.” (Tenth Book)

>>> As true now as it was then; the startling ability of people “to endure;”
>>> DougInNC learned the Mandarin term rěn shòu is “to endure” from reading “Where the Great Wall Ends” by North Carolina author Jinny Batterson

“whether they have sinned or no, thou doest not understand perfectly. For many things are done by way of discreet policy; and generally a man must know many things first, before he be able truly and judiciously to judge.” (Eleventh Book)

>>> consider the totality of events and outcomes”

“she doth make such equal distribution of all things, as of duration, substance form, operation, and of events and accidents. But herein consider not whether thou shalt find this equality in everything absolutely and by itself; but whether in all the particulars of some one thing taken together, and compared with all the particulars of some other thing, and them together likewise.” (Eighth Book)

>>> again, consider the totality of events and outcomes”

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