Marcus Aurelius on Living Well

Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial
– Marcus Aurelius

Some 2000 years ago in a cold, wet military camp on the Northern frontier of the Roman empire, an old man would rise early, sit at his desk, and start his day reflecting and writing. He wrote about life, death and what it is to live well. Mostly he wrote to admonish and encourage himself, setting the tone for the day.

Marcus Aurelius was the Roman emperor, the most powerful man in the world. He was also a Stoic philosopher and writer. His journals, now published in Meditations, were private, not intended for an audience. And so we get something rare – a personal, honest, and reflective account on the meaning of life from the most prominent man of his time.

I’ve summarized some of my favorite quotations here.

  • ‘Every hour of the day give vigorous attention, as a Roman and as a man, to the performance of the task in hand with precise analysis, with a affected dignity, with human sympathy, with dispassionate justice – and to vacating your mind from all other thoughts.’
  • ‘So where should a man direct his endeavor? Here only – a right mind, action for the common good, speech incapable of lies’
  • ‘You should take no action unwillingly, selfishly, uncritically, or with conflicting motives.’
  • ‘So display those virtues which are wholly in your power – integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity.’
  • ‘Never regard as a benefit to yourself anything which will force you at some point to break your faith, to leave integrity behind, to hate, suspect, or curse another, to dissemble, to covet anything needing the secrecy of walls and drapes.’
  • ‘Nothing is so conducive to greatness of mind as the ability to subject each element of our experience in life to methodical and truthful examination’
  • ‘If someone can prove me wrong and show me my mistake in any thought or action, I shall gladly change. I seek the truth, which never harmed anyone: the harm is persist in one’s own self-deception and ignorance.’
  • ‘Your mind will take on the character of your most frequent thoughts: souls are dyed by thoughts.’
  • ‘Harm to you cannot subsist in another’s directing mind, nor indeed in any change of circumstance. Where, then? In that part of you that judges harm. So no such judgement, and all is well.’
  • ‘If mind is common to all of us, then we have reason also in common – that which makes us rational beings. If so, then common too is the reason which dictates what we should or should not do. If so, then law too is common to us all. If so, then we are citizens. If so, we share in a constitution. If so, the universe is a kind of community.’
  • ‘Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. All this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil… Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them,… Nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him.’
  • ‘A king’s lot: to do good and be damned.’
  • ‘The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.’
  • ‘Take care not to be Caesarified, or dyed in purple: it happens. So keep yourself simple, good, pure, serious, unpretentious, a friend of justice, god-fearing, kind, full of affection, strong for your proper work.’
  • ‘Vanity is the greatest seducer of reason: when you are most convinced that your work is important, that is when you are most under its spell.’
  • ‘Do not be ashamed of help. It is your task to achieve your assigned duty, like a soldier in a scaling party.’
  • ‘Change: nothing inherently bad in the process, nothing inherently good in the result.’
  • ‘Do not dream of possession of what you do not have: rather reflect on the greatest blessings in what you do have’
  • ‘Even if you were destined to live three thousand years, or ten times that long, nevertheless remember that no one loses any life other than the one he lives, or lives any life other than the one he loses.’
  • ‘Remind yourself too that each of us lives only in the present moment, a mere fragment of time: the rest is life past or uncertain future.’
  • ‘Both the longest-lived and earliest to die suffer the same loss. It is only the present moment of which either stands to be deprived: and if indeed this is all he has, he cannot lose what he does not have.’
  • ‘To put it shortly: all the things of the body stream away like a river, all things of the mind are dreams and delusion: life is warfare, and a visit in a strange land; the only lasting fame is oblivion. What then can escort us on our way?’
  • ‘to this he must come pure, at peace, ready to depart, in unforced harmony with his fate.’


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