Meditations by Marcus Aurelius: Book Summary, Key Lessons and Best Quotes

Created: August 2, 2020 1:55 PM Property: Processed Updated: July 4, 2021 2:17 PM

Meditations is perhaps the only document of its kind ever made. It is the private thoughts of the world’s most powerful man giving advice to himself on how to make good on the responsibilities and obligations of his positions.

So, who was Marcus? A Roman emperor from 161 to 180 A.D., Marcus practiced Stoicism and wrote about his own Stoic practice in his journals.

1. The Evil That Men Do Harms You Only if You Do Evil in Response

Marcus reminded himself to not be upset by the misdeeds of others and to correct them if possible, but if they were stubborn and would not change, to accept it. In reacting to such people, we must never allow our own principles to be violated.

He likened his relation to bad people to them being different body parts of the same person. Good and bad people are both part of the same universal nature and they are meant to interact and cooperate. Marcus Aurelius—and indeed all the Stoics—believed that we were part of an inner-connected organism. That you couldn’t hurt one person without hurting them all. “What injures the hive, injures the bee,” he said. “The best revenge,” he said, “is not to be like that.” Meaning: When you hurt others, you hurt the group and you hurt yourself.

“It is a ridiculous thing for a man not to fly from his own badness, which is indeed possible, but to fly from other men’s badness, which is impossible.”

Or as another translation would put it,

“It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own.”

Forget what other people are doing, forget what they’re doing wrong. You’ve got enough on your plate. Focus on yourself—focus on what you might be doing wrong. Fix that. Keep an eye fixed on your own life. There’s no need—and frankly, there’s not enough time—to waste a second spying on other people.

Mind your business.

2. Fame and Desires are Not Worth Pursuing

Marcus repeatedly explains why the pursuit of fame and praise is foolish and why we especially should not care about what others think of us after we die. He points out that so many famous men have been forgotten, that those who would praise one posthumously will themselves soon die. He explains that there are no immortal actions:

“Consider that as the heaps of sand piled on one another hide the former sands, so in life the events which go before are soon covered by those which come after.”

Marcus would say,

“When you’ve done well and another has benefited by it, why like a fool do you look for a third thing on top— credit for the good deed or a favor in return?”

Marcus and the Stoics see doing good as the proper job of a human being. So why on earth do you need thanks or recognition for having done the right thing? It’s your job. Why would you need to be famous? Because you were talented? Because you were brilliant? Because you were successful? These things are part of the job too.

3. The Universe is Change

He reminds us that all of us will die, however, we only ever lose the present moment because that is all we ever have. Nobody “loses more” by dying early. The longest and shortest life will end the same way and be finished for the same eternity.

He also reminds us that we could die at any moment and to live to the fullest while we still can.

“Not to live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you. While you’re alive and able — be good.”

4. Problems are Created in the Mind

Being superior to pain and pleasure allows us to fully accept the course of nature and focus on being virtuous. Our perceptions of events as troublesome are the real source of any unhappiness we experience, not the events themselves.

we experience anxiety:

“Let not future things disturb you, for you will come to them, if it shall be necessary, having with you the same reason which you now use for present things.”

If we don’t let events make us worse people, we are never truly harmed by them. He explains it perfectly when he says,

“Whatever anyone does or says, I must be good, just as if the gold, or the emerald, or the purple were always saying this, whatever anyone does or says, I must be emerald and keep my color.”

Or as he put it in what would become one of the most emblematic quotes from Meditations, “Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been.”

Events can cause people to lose their cool and act immorally, but still they are not harmed by the events, but rather their reaction to them.

The impediment to action advances action.

What stands in the way becomes the way.”*

5. Your Rational Mind is Your Greatest Asset

“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

Marcus teaches that our mind is a thing that controls itself completely and is separated from the world; it cannot be affected by events unless it makes itself be affected.

Three Key Takeaway Lessons from Meditations

  1. The most important lesson to take away from Meditations is that our minds have great power. We can choose how we perceive events and we can always choose to be virtuous. If we practice, we can instantly erase any bad impressions from our mind. We are completely in control of our thoughts and actions. Remember the two quotes: “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
  2. People will always do awful (or at least unpleasant) things and we are only responsible our own virtue. We can choose to be good even when we are surrounded by wrong. When another harms us, we can react with kindness, advising them of their errors if possible but being okay with it if they ignore this advice. When another angers us, we must immediately consider their point of view, remember that we have our own faults, and respond with positivity and indifference to any supposed harm done to us.
  3. The deepest lesson in Meditations relates to our mortality and the shortness of life. We shall soon be replaced, and we ought not waste our lives being distressed. We should focus on doing good for the others with the unknowable amount of time we have left to live. To make this a part of our lives we must reflect regularly on the fact that we will die. This can result in some of the deepest understandings available to humans, therefore death should be confronted no matter how unpleasant it may be to think about. We should reflect on all the people that have come before us, what is left of them now, and what will later be left of us.