Study Guide

Meditations Principles

By Marcus Aurelius


Book 2

What then can escort us on our way? One thing, and one thing only: philosophy. This consists in keeping the divinity within us inviolate and free from harm, master of pleasure and pain, doing nothing without aim, truth, or integrity, and independent of others' action or failure to act. (2.17.2)

As you read Marcus's thoughts, it'll probably become clear to you that his philosophical principles are both totally necessary for his sanity and utterly challenging to follow. However, the payoff is big. If a person can cultivate that inner fortress of reason, there is nothing that can ever touch him or her again. This kind of fierce independence is the hallmark of Stoicism.

And the end for rational creatures is to follow the reason and the rule of that most venerable archetype of a governing state—the Universe. (2.16)

Marcus has one overriding goal as he moves through his life: to be more in tune with his nature, which comes to him from the nature of the Whole, the reason that creates and directs everything in the universe. This is trickle-down governance, something possible because Marcus's universe is strictly hierarchical, right down to the irrational creatures of the earth. Everything has its purpose, and to buck against that is to cut yourself off not just from other humans, but from the gods as well.

Book 3

You should take no action unwillingly, selfishly, uncritically, or with conflicting motives. Do not dress your thoughts up in smart finery: do not be a gabbler or a meddler. (3.5)

Marcus wants to be a straight talker. From the beginning of his work, it's clear that he has no love for rhetoric, the art of talking real fancy. He doesn't want to lie in order to persuade, nor does he want to take any other crooked path to his goal. Simply put, he wants to be a good man. The only way to do that is to be transparently honest in all that he does, and to do all for the good of the community.

Book 4

Always have these two principles in readiness. First, to do only what the reason inherent in kingly and judicial power prescribes for the benefit of mankind. Second, to change your ground, if in fact there is someone to correct and guide you away from some notion. (4.12)

Marcus is simultaneously imperial and humble in this passage. He constantly reminds himself to do what is in his nature—that which he was born to do, according to the workings of fate. But there is no need to be conceited about gods-given power. Marcus knows that he can make a mistake like anyone else, and he knows that it's crucial for him to accept correction when it comes from a reliable source. In other places, Marcus explains that this does not limit his power. In fact, it affirms his independence, since it shows that he can make up his own mind to accept help.

Finally, then, remember this retreat into your own little territory within yourself. Above all, no agonies, no tensions. Be your own master, and look at things as a man, as a human being, as a citizen, as a moral creature. (4.3.4)

Marcus reiterates the need to create an interior space for retreat and to decorate it with the finest doctrines of philosophy. We see you rolling your eyes. But hold up: the point of all this, according to Marcus, is so that when things get hot out there in the world, you can come into the shade and find a source of comfort without ever having to leave home. The ability to find everything you need within yourself to calm yourself and find perspective is a highly prized virtue. It means freedom from dependence on external, changeable things, like other people's opinions of you.

Book 5

Don't let the impression of other people's grief carry you away indiscriminately. Help them, yes, as best you can and as the case deserves, even if their grief is for the loss of something indifferent: but do not imagine their loss as any real harm—that is the wrong way of thinking. (5.36)

Marcus voices a central tenet of Stoicism: keep the drama to a minimum. While empathy is important—especially when trying to figure out a person's motivations—it can go too far. It's never a good idea for you to indulge your emotions too far, whether in grief or happiness. Manic highs and lows, for Marcus, are a sign that you're not in control of your mind and are too susceptible to sense impressions. The further you can distance yourself from emotional response, the more divine you are.

So display those virtues which are wholly in your own power—integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity. Do you see how many virtues you can already display without any excuse of lack of talent or aptitude? (5.5)

Marcus is feeling a little sorry for himself, since he wasn't born with any obvious talent. Essentially, he tells himself to quit whining, since he has virtues enough—if only he would display them. In the end, it's a failing of his own that he doesn't appear as accomplished as he is (he's emperor, after all). If he can follow his fine principles, someone will surely notice.

Book 6

Take care not to be Caesarified, or dyed in purple: it happens. So keep yourself simple, good, unpretentious, a friend of justice, god-fearing, kind, full of affection, strong for your proper work. Strive hard to remain the same man that philosophy wished to make you. (6.30)

This principle goes along with Marcus's earlier bit about plain-speaking: basically, just don't be fancy. Purity and simplicity bring you closer to the gods and keep you from the influence of the external world. It also keeps you clear of dependence on unworthy (transient) things and keeps you focused on the eternal, the important. So no matter how imperial things get for Marcus, he's got to respond to the strictures of philosophy, which always tell him to keep it real.

Book 7

Your principles are living things. How else could they be deadened, except by the extinction of the corresponding mental images? And the constant rekindling of these is up to you. (7.2)

Marcus even has principles about his principles. In this case, he realizes that he has to work hard to keep those philosophical ideals relevant and active in his life. If he loses mental focus, he'll forget what he's about. It's a lonely struggle, but it's also a little exciting to think that something abstract can be crucial to actions in daily life.

Perfection of character is this: to live each day as if it were your last, without frenzy, without apathy, without pretence. (7.69)

This is totally the most quoted bit of the Marcus's work. And why not? It's got that kind of in-your-face frankness that we prize, combined with useful self-help advice. But seriously, Marcus is big on keeping death in mind. In a way, death is the goal of life—all living things tend in that direction, and it's a release from all the cares of the world. Keeping death in mind seems like the definition of morbid, but in this sense, it symbolizes the biggest kinds of catastrophes that can happen to you. Marcus knows that if you can keep on an even emotional keel when thinking about your own death or the death of your loved ones, you've got everything else licked. Classic Stoic move.

Book 8

Where then is [good] to be found? In doing what man's nature requires. And how is he to do this? By having principles to govern his impulses and actions. What are these principles? Those of good and evil—and the belief that nothing is good for a human being which does not make him just, self-controlled, brave and free: and nothing evil which does not make him the opposite of these. (8.1)

Marcus sums up the purpose of keeping his philosophical principles alive: they provide a framework for him to figure out his purpose in life and how to achieve it. Marcus says here that his purpose is to be a good man, or one who is independent of anything contrary to human nature. It's a broad definition of good and evil, but it works for Marcus, who is primarily interested in becoming more human, according to the intention of the Universe.