Friday, December 3, 2010


Bust of Marcus Aurelius
Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York

Roman emperors are seldom remembered for their qualities of humility and introspection.  There are a few exceptions to this rule, however, and the most prominent is Marcus Aurelius Antoninus — known in modern times simply as Marcus Aurelius — who was Roman Emperor from 161 to 180. Marcus Aurelius was a practitioner and proponent of  Stoic philosophy, and he is widely remembered as one of the "Five Good Emperors."

For most of the last thirteen years of his life, Marcus Aurelius remained encamped with his army in its long campaign against invading German tribes on the northern border of the empire, near what is now modern Hungary.  It was during this period that Marcus wrote a series of personal notes on the philosophical components of a virtuous life.  Among other things, he addressed the relationship of man and nature, the importance of living in the present moment, the dynamics that should govern our relationships with other people, and the way that people should encounter and deal with change, especially adversity.

Although the personal notes were never intended for public dissemination, they were preserved and ultimately published in 1559 as The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.  Since their publication, The Meditations have had great influence on statesmen and philosophers throughout the world.  The former American President Bill Clinton was greatly inspired by Marcus Aurelius; poet Matthew Arnold once declared that Marcus was "the most beautiful figure in history;" and British historian Michael Grant claimed that The Meditations are "one of the most acute and sophisticated pieces of ancient writing that exists."  Grant also said that The Meditations is "the best book ever written by a major ruler." 

Over the years, I have acquired several different translations of the meditations of Marcus Aurelius. The most recent is a highly regarded contemporary translation, titled The Emperor's Handbook, by C. Scott Hicks and David V. Hicks.  Using that translation, I invite you to peruse through some of the thoughts of a great man who still has much to teach us.  I begin with a quote that could have well been used in my last posting, which relates to the need of mankind to always remain in harmony with the patterns and rhythms of the universe.

I am in harmony with all that is in harmony with you, O thou great Universe.  Nothing opportune for you is too early or too late for me. Anything your seasons bear, O Nature, is fruit of mine; all comes from you, abides in you, and returns to you.

First thing every morning tell yourself: I am going to meet a busybody, an ingrate, a bully, a liar, a schemer, and a boor.  Ignorance of good and evil has made them what they are. . .  . None of them can harm me, for none can force me to do wrong against my will, and I cannot be angry with a brother or resent him, for we were born into this world to work together . . .

Bear in mind that the measure of a man is the worth of the things he cares about.

Are my guiding principles healthy and robust?  On this hangs everything.

Your days are numbered.  Use them to throw open the windows of your soul to the sun.

Purge your mind of all aimless and idle thoughts, especially those that pry into the affairs of others or wish them ill.

We live only in the present, in this fleet-footed moment.  The rest is lost and behind us, or ahead of us and may never be found.

Bronze Statue of Marcus Aurelius
Musei Capitolini
Photo by Jean-Christophe Benoist

Nowhere is there a more idyllic spot, a vacation home more private and peaceful, than in one's own mind, especially when it is furnished in such a way that the merest inward glance induces ease (and by ease I mean the effects of an orderly and well-appointed mind, neither lavish nor crude)."

Be the man happy with his fate, rejoicing in his acts or justice, and bent upon deeds of kindness.

Cherish your gifts, however humble, and take pleasure in them.

Fragment of Bronze Portrait of Marcus Aurelius
Louvre Museum

Claim your right to say or do anything that accords with nature, and pay no attention to the chatter of your critics.

Consider those you personally have known who, ignoring the good that lay at their feet, ran after some vain thing and never found happiness that was within their reach all the time.  A man's interest in an object should be no greater than its intrinsic worth.

Never forget that the universe is a single living organism possessed of one substance and one soul, holding all things suspended in a single consciousness and creating all things with a single purpose that they might work together spinning and weaving and knotting whatever comes to pass.

Everything is as natural and familiar as a spring rose or a summer grape. This includes disease, death, slander, treason, and all those things that gladden and sadden the hearts of fools.

Bad luck borne nobly is good luck.

Let the virtues you do possess shine forth: your honesty, dignity, and stamina; your indifference to pleasure and loathing of self-pity; your wanting little for yourself and giving much to others; your measured words and temperate deeds.

Detail from Column of Marcus Aurelius
Piazza Colonna

Don't become disgusted with yourself, lose patience, or give up if you sometimes fail to act as your philosophy dictates, but after each setback, return to reason and be content if most of your acts are worthy of a good man.  Love the philosophy to which you return, and go back to it . . . 

Nothing should be called good that fails to enlarge our humanity.

Your mind is colored by the thoughts it feeds upon, for the mind is dyed by ideas and imaginings.  Saturate your mind, then, with a succession of ideas like these:  Wherever life is possible, it is possible to live in the right way.

Nothing ever happens to a man he is not equipped by nature to endure.

The best revenge is not to do as they do.

Column of Marcus Aurelius
Piazza Colonna

You always have the option of having no opinion.  There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can't control.  These things are not asking to be judged by you.  Leave them alone.

All things are woven together, and they make a sacred pattern.  One might almost say that no one thing is entirely at odds with any other thing. All the parts are arranged in relation to one another, and together they form one beautiful and orderly whole.  For there is one universe made out of all things, one God pervading it all, one being and one law, one reason common to all intelligent creatures, and one truth . . .

Seek refuge in yourself.  The knowledge of having acted justly is all your reasoning inner self needs to be fully content and at peace with itself.

To live each day as if it were your last without speeding up or slowing down or pretending to be other than what you are —  this is perfection of character.

Happy is the man who does the work of man.  And what is a man's work? To love his neighbor, to distrust the evidence of his senses, to distinguish false ideas from true, and to contemplate the works of nature.

If you're troubled by something outside yourself, it isn't the thing itself that bothers you, but your opinion of it, and this opinion you have the power to revoke immediately.

Fear not that life will someday end; fear instead that a life in harmony with nature may never begin. 

Portrait of Marcus Aurelius
Charlotte Mary Yonge

Note on Photographs:  Except for the second photo of the Bronze Statue of Marcus Aurelius, for which attribution has been given, all photos used in this posting are in the public domain and were downloaded from Wikimedia Commons. 


  1. George you have given us much to meditate upon this weekend. Such wisdom. I will have to come back again to linger and absorb. For now, I am resonating with the quotes about the universe and all that is in it being one organism woven together with a single consciousness and purpose. I so believe that and so appreciate how Marcus Aurelius articulates it.

    I'll not be leaving a comment each time, but I will be back to read and reread. Thank you!

  2. To Bonnie,

    Thanks, Bonnie. Glad that you have found something here that will draw you back for further reading. I know this is a long post and do not expect that anyone will read it all at one sitting. Each of the meditations is food for thought.

  3. I am quite excited now, George. I have not read through all the quotes, but I read enough for the next few hours, especially that first thing every morning to tell yourself. I really love that! It reminds me of what Inge always says: Someone can throw you a ball, but you don't have to catch it.

    I am particularly keen to Marcus Aurelius after just reading these lines in Zorba:

    I, for my part, stayed awake a long time, watching the stars travel across the sky. I saw the whole sky change its position--and the shell of my skull, like an observatory dome, changed position, too, together with the constellations. "Watch the movement of the stars as if you were turning with them. . . ." This sentence of Marcus Aurelius filled my heart with harmony.

    Again, thank you for your rec of Zorba, and thank you for this post, which I, too, will return to so I can absorb the other passages.

    How nice that there have been a few good emperors.

  4. I'd also like to add that it's a treat to see your photos from the various museums. I really like the one from the Louvre, for it seems to have retained just the right elements to reveal something of his stoic features. Beautiful.

  5. George, I love how you have thrown open the windows of your soul to the sun in these pages. Thank you for sharing the wisdom of this emperor about whom I knew next to nothing. The partial bronze in the Louvre reveals the face of a kind, patient and wise man.

    He was ahead of his time, understanding that all things are woven together making a sacred pattern. It's amazing how relevant all these teachings you selected are.

    I remember being impressed with the column at Piazza Collona in Rome. I appreciate knowing more about this eloquent man.

  6. To Ruth,

    Thanks, as always, for your lovely comments, my friend. I, too, am especially fond of the quote about what one should tell oneself at the beginning of each morning. Interestingly, this is the opening line of Book II the meditations, which is the first book of real substance (Book I is essentially acknowledgments to his mentors).

    I usually use my on photos to illustrate a piece, but these photos are in the public domain and were downloaded from Wikimedia Commons. Perhaps I will add a note to that effect.

    Thanks again. I hope you continue to find something in these observations that will resonate with you.

  7. To Dutchbaby,

    Thanks for your lovely comments, Dutchbaby. I'm delighted that you have found something inspirational in these meditations. Marcus Aurelius does not fit the stereotype of a Roman Emperor. While he enjoyed the wealth and power of his predecessors, and while he discharged his duties with skill and commitment, he was a philosopher at heart, a man who probably personified the "philosopher king" envisioned by Plato.

  8. Just the thing to begin this day. I had been pondering a few of Marcus Aurelius' quotes recently and am so glad to add these, as they speak directly to my life and those ideas in which I'm seeking further understanding. I've read each and went back to reread. I think I'll bookmark this page, perhaps even purchase this translation. Thank you, George. Perfect timing, of course.

  9. To Teresa,

    Thanks for your kind comments, Teresa. I'm delighted that you have discovered Marcus Aurelius on your own, and I hope these quotes will resonate with your own life.

  10. He was not the first nor will be the last to meditate on and discover eternal truths.

    Why then has mankind still not accepted the wisdom of great men as the rule to follow when it is so clearly the only way for life to be of value.

    I had a heated argument with a friend the other day about the innate goodness v. selfishness of man. My feeling is that selfishness, self-interest and disregard for nature and our neighbour will be hard to eradicate, if at all, ever.

  11. To Friko,

    You are right, Friko. Marcus Aurelius was not the first to meditate upon and discover eternal truths. It is significant, however, that what we remember most about him is his philosophy. Let us hope that the flame from which these truths flow continues to burn.

    Unfortunately, I am inclined to think that selfishness, rather than goodness, is the dominant force in most people. If people act for the good, it is often because they are rewarded for doing so. How many people are constantly working for the good of mankind, even when their personal lives are sacrificed in the process?

    I am reminded of a line from one of our comediennes, Lily Tomlin, which goes something like this: "Each year I become more and more cynical, but I just can't seem to keep up." If there is to be any hope, we must continue to speak out for the values that underpin our lives. That, I think, is what Marcus Aurelius did.

  12. Wise words indeed. I pull my own copy of the "Meditations" down from the shelf (Penguin, translated by Martin Hammond) and find this:

    "Your children are no more than 'leaves'. 'Leaves' too these loud voices of loyal praise, these curses from your opponents, this silent blame or mockery: mere 'leaves' likewise those with custody of your future fame. All these 'come round in the season of spring': but then the wind blows them down, and the forest 'puts out others' in their stead. All things are short-lived - this is their common lot - but you pursue likes and dislikes as if all was fixed for eternity. In a little while you too will close your eyes, and soon there will be others mourning the man who buries you."

  13. George,
    these are wonderful quotes!

    I've been sitting on a treasure and never knew it - from my bookshelf I just retrieved a copy of these Meditations passed from my grandmother to my mother to me (published in 1945). I've never read it and the book is now added to my To Be Read pile.

    Also, you posted the perfect quote for me to add to my recent post on The Philosopher Kings. I shall scurry away to add it...

    Thanks for passing the brilliance around :)

  14. To Robert,

    I love this addition you have provided. I like the way he treats both praise and scorn as ephemeral in the larger scheme of things. Have you noticed how much his Stoic meditations are similar to Buddhist and Zen wisdom — the same notions of detachment? Thanks, as always, for the comments.

  15. To Neighbor,

    Thanks for the kind comments, Neighbor. How serendipitous that my posting drew your attention to a treasured book that was just waiting for you on your bookshelf. Your edition will have a different translation that the one I used, but the essence of his statements, of course, will remain the same.

    I'm only too happy to pass around the brilliance of others. Old Marcus must be pretty happy that we are still talking about his personal notes.

  16. Awesome post. George, again you give me so much to ponder. I was going to list all of my favorite quotes, then I found myself listing nearly all of them. There is so much wisdom here. One particularly stands out for me today:

    “All things are woven together, and they make a sacred pattern. One might almost say that no one thing is entirely at odds with any other thing…”. I truly believe that.

    And again, you and I are in sync, because I love:

    “We live only in the present, in this fleet-footed moment. The rest is lost and behind us, or ahead of us and may never be found.”

    I spent too much time in the past few weeks either worrying about the future or wishing for the way things were. I guess that’s only natural, considering the circumstances.

    But I don't want to lose today. Today is good. So very good. Coming here, reading, thinking--it’s a beautiful moment. Thank you again for the beauty.

  17. To Julie,

    Thanks for the wonderful comments, Julie. You lift my heart as I go into the weekend.

    There is no greater challenge in life than learning to be present in the here and now, learning to be at peace with what is. If you can master this, you will have mastered your life. I'm getting better at it, but I am still a work in progress. Just remember that the past and the future are nothing but the egotistical distractions of the mind. Reality is this moment, this nanosecond. That is something that was understood by Marcus Aurelius more than 1,800 years ago. How I wish that everyone could understand it today.

  18. Well, I think I found an amazing Christmas purchase for my husband (and myself). Which one book do you recommend? Each quote needs long consideration. And I LOVE the remnants of the face - perfect in my minds eye the way it is.

  19. Emperors New Clothes by Hicks & Hicks? I could by two if one doesn't really cover everything.

  20. To Margaret,

    Thanks for the comments, Margaret. In addition to "The Emperor's Handbook," which is a very contemporary translation, I have the Penguin Classics translation by Maxwell Staniforth and the Everyman's Library translation by A.S.L. Farquharson. Of these three, I have found the Hicks and Staniforth translations to be the most readable. If you have a well-stocked bookstore nearby, you might go and visually check out the various translations and see which appeals most to you.

    I, too, love the fragments of the bronze portrait of Marcus Aurelius. The old adage that less is more seems to apply in art as well as other endeavors. Best wishes to you and your husband in the holidays.

  21. I was happy to see this post. I read the Meditations last summer and was very struck by how "modern" his thinking seemed to be. Genuinely timeless stuff.

  22. To Fireweed,

    Thanks, Fireweed. Glad you had a chance to read this classic, and you're absolutely right — these are timeless observations that have a great deal of relevance to our world today.

  23. Dear Gorge,

    I am glad I called back and read your reply. You have made me feel a lot better.
    All too often my rather jaundiced view of human nature gets me into trouble and frequently I get shouted down, often in quite rude and unkind language, mainly by people who think of themselves as tolerant and kind.
    Some of my melancholy stems from the fact that I simply cannot see that mankind is ever going to shed its mainly selfish attitude. I acti=ually admitted inthe a/m argument that in the case of his good v. mine I'd probably choose mine, when it came right down to it.
    He said nothing to that in reply.

    I am as kind as I can possible be and I try to leave a decent and considerate life. That does not mean that I walk around with blinkers on.

  24. To Friko,

    Thanks for your additional — and, as always, insightful — comments. Some years ago, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was asked whether he was optimistic about the future. His response, as I recall, was essentially this: "When I look at the history of mankind, there is no basis upon which I can be optimistic. Nonetheless, I remain hopeful." Along the same lines, I think it was Boswell's Samuel Johnson who said, in his approval of remarriage after divorce, it's "the triumph of hope over experience." Perhaps that's the best we can do — be conscious of man's selfish nature, but work hopefully to overcome it. Have a good and hopeful week.

  25. Hi, George! Thank you for this. I recently read William B. Irvine's A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.

    Reading this book was a revelation of sorts for me. I had assumed that my high school survey of world civilizations had filled me in adequately on stoicism--and how wrong I was!

    I was most struck by the many parallels between stoic philosophy and Buddhism and Hinduism. Perhaps the most reassuring and hopeful thing about humanity is how the wisest among us say almost the same things. All we gotta to do is listen to the elders, do our own first-hand investigations and offer to share what we learn. I know a bunch of us in this corner of the blog land that are doing just that.

  26. To Dan,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Dan. As indicated in my above response to Robert, I, too, am impressed with the parallels between Stoic philosophy on the one hand and Zen, Buddhism, and Hinduism on the other. Some of the mediations of Marcus Aurelius could be placed in the Tao Te Ching and one would naturally assume they originated with Lao Tzu.

    I agree that the great sages all appear to be saying the same things. The truth is one, as they say, though it is known by many names.

  27. Excellent post. He was, indeed, a wise man.

    "Be the man happy with his fate, rejoicing in his acts or justice, and bent upon deeds of kindness." Struck a special chord with me.

  28. To Tess,

    Thanks for the nice comments. I, too, am especially fond of your favorite quote. Have a good week.

  29. Such a wise man with very wise thought provoking words-- hard to find in our day and age.

  30. Now there's someone I could share a glass of beer with. Wouldn't it be fascinating to meet someone who wrote such things? There could be a language problem though, my Latin is not up to much. But I would like to ask him about "Providence", a word much used in the translation I have of his works.
    I'll have to content myself with looking again at the book I have somewhere on the top shelf.
    Regarding what has been said here about selfishness and cynicism, I think we have to constantly try to keep those at bay. We never know what effect our positive deeds, however small, can have. This is our reason for hope.
    Thank you for this.

  31. To Donna,

    Thanks for the comments, Donna. You're right, of course — we could use more a few more minds like that of Marcus Aurelius.

  32. To Tramp,

    Thanks for the nice comments, Tramp. I agree — it would be fascinating to sit down and share a dinner or glass of beer with someone like Marcus Aurelius.

    I also agree that we must avoid becoming cynical and hopeless. Great things always begin with small acts by individuals who refuse to accept the cynical notion that there is nothing that can be done to change the course of things.

  33. I found you while googling Marcus Aurelius translations. I just finished my second reading of East of Eden and this time I paused at Lee's reading of MA, 'Observe constantly that all things take place by change and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the universe loves nothing so much as to change things which are and to make new things like them. For everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be.' Lee had stolen this book from his dear friend Samuel Hamilton. They are both my favorite characters, who love to question and to investigate the meaning. You seem to be one also. Thank you for the blog. Kind regards, Nga

    1. Thanks for your lovely commetn, Nga. The quote is fabulous, which makes me want to read East of Eden, which I don't think I have ever read. Hope you stop by again.