Study Guide

Meditations Themes

  • Freedom and Confinement

    It might also seem strange that a Roman emperor would be such an advocate of personal liberty and even freedom for his subjects. But be aware: Marcus Aurelius isn't speaking of a fully democratic society in his Meditations. Or at least that's not really his point. He's all about personal freedom—you know, freedom of the mind. Basically, if you ask this guy, true freedom can't be achieved until you retreat into the fortress of your mind and separate it completely from the desires and concerns of the external world.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. What does Marcus mean when he talks about being free and independent?
    2. What does Marcus think about things external to the mind? How do these things affect human liberty?
    3. What are some things that hamper the freedom of humans? Be specific.
    4. In what ways does belief in the gods contribute to or detract from personal freedom, in Marcus's opinion?

    Chew on This

    Marcus believes that a truly free person is totally self-sufficient, not dependent on anyone for anything. Yet he also says that humans were made for each other—so his philosophy is contradictory.

    Humans can only be shackled by their thoughts. Fate and destiny have no power over them in this regard.

  • Principles

    Basically, the Meditations is just a notebook of principles written by Marcus Aurelius to himself. His commitment to Stoic philosophy meant that above all things, Marcus wanted to act in accordance with his proper nature, as determined by the Universal Mind.

    Sound complicated? That's because it kind of is—and that's why Marcus needed to work through his thoughts in writing. The constant reiteration of certain ideals doesn't tell us that Marcus was a bad writer who couldn't keep track of his content. It means that at various times in his life, he needed to remind himself who he was and what he was striving for. It also tells us that he took his principles very seriously—they were important enough for him to keep thinking about them throughout his life.

    Questions About Principles

    1. What is the purpose of following philosophical principles, according to Marcus?
    2. What qualities does Marcus consider to be inherent parts of human nature? Which characteristics are outside of it?
    3. How does Marcus view fear?
    4. How do humans achieve freedom through the applications of these principles, in Marcus's way of thinking?

    Chew on This

    Marcus repeats his principles so often in the Meditations because he's trying to convince himself to be better. It's clear that he's not really following all of his precepts very well.

    Though Marcus believes that humans were made to advance the common good, his definition of community is pretty narrow.

  • Good versus Evil

    Marcus's definitions of good and evil in Meditations are about as straightforward as you can get. Good is what is right, or what is part of your nature. Evil is basically just the opposite of good.

    That may sound easy enough, but Marcus challenges us throughout the work when he says things like "everything that happens is just" or "nothing is inherently good or evil." He's working with a worldview that claims a benevolent creator—the universal Whole—whose goal is to maintain the order and health of the universe. Sometimes that means something scary, like bringing in wild beasts to devour Christians. But it's all good: anything brutal is merely the byproduct of the lovely orderliness of the universe.

    According to Marcus, you'll only see evil if you make value judgments about the things happening to you. (And that is something that a good Stoic must simply never do.) Basically, evil is either doing things against your nature or interpreting things that happen to you incorrectly.

    Questions About Good versus Evil

    1. How does Marcus define evil? How about good?
    2. What is the proper response to wrongdoing, according to Marcus?
    3. What does Marcus say about bad people?
    4. Why does Marcus want to be a good man, above all else?

    Chew on This

    Marcus believes that there is absolutely no reason to intervene if a man is doing something wrong. He's got his own directing mind to look after.

    Marcus believes that the world is essentially a just place only because he's emperor. Given his unique status, it isn't possible for him to understand injustice.

  • Versions of Reality

    If Marcus Aurelius were writing today, he might have called his book something like The Power of Positive Thinking—or at least The Power of Neutral Thinking. One of the dude's central principles is that "thinking makes it so" (2.16). Basically, it's all in your head.

    In Meditations, Marcus understands that nothing in the universe can truly harm him unless he believes himself to be injured or to feel pain. If he refrains from making a value judgment on the things that happen to him, he can keep his mind isolated, pure, and unharmed. He repeatedly advises himself to strip things bare, right down to their elements, to see them for what they really are.

    Now, there are some things that do withstand the reality acid test. Virtues—like beauty, truth, freedom, goodness—are empirically awesome and cannot be defaced of their value. As for the rest of human existence, Marcus is basically like, "Reality check, folks. Most of life is just tedium and decay."

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. What does Marcus think about the concept of reality? Is it an easily defined category for him?
    2. What does Marcus mean when he says that no one can really harm him?
    3. How does Marcus think about things that are "wrong"? How does he approach a wrongdoer?
    4. In what ways does pleasure fall into the same category as pain? How should a rational human being approach them, according to Marcus?

    Chew on This

    Marcus tries to lift himself out of ordinary human perception so that he can escape the monotony of life on earth.

    Marcus believes that there really is no objective good and evil in the world. It's all in our heads.

  • Mortality

    Death? Yeah, Marcus Aurelius is basically like, "Whatever."

    As with other unpleasant things in life, Marcus sees death in Meditations as a purely practical concern: it's a built-in part of human nature, and it's mandated by the gods for the benefit of the entire universe. Without death, humans couldn't contribute their base elements back to the substance of the universe, and the Whole couldn't renew itself or fashion new life. The greatest recycling program ever created would grind to a screeching halt.

    Basically, Marcus is a great remedy for the gross and boring existence we face on earth. And while the loss of family, friends, colleagues, kids, and mentors may seem like a blow, it won't be long, Marcus says, until you're gone, too. And the people who will mourn you. It may be tough on the individual psyche, but it's good for the universe.

    So suck it up, buttercup. There'll be no existential whining here.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Why does Marcus believe that death should not be feared?
    2. What role do the gods have in human mortality?
    3. How does Marcus deal with the mortality of children?
    4. Why does Marcus say that the death of the individual is a good thing for the universe?

    Chew on This

    Marcus's concern for his own death is concealed in his protestations that death is just no big deal.

    Marcus doesn't know what the afterlife will hold for him, which is fine with him—as long as it isn't total oblivion. Right?

  • Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    In the Meditations, Marcus spends a lot of time reminding himself that he was put on this earth for a purpose. Given the fact that he's, you know, Emperor of Rome, you might think he would believe his purpose was to rule everything and have ultimate power. Well, you'd be wrong. This guy believes his purpose is to do social acts and benefit the common good.

    That's essentially the nature and purpose of every human being, according to Marcus. He just happens to be in a unique position to really put it into practice.

    Marcus is big on causes—what sets life in motion, brings completion to human existence, and keeps everything in balance. And while he has no great opinion of life on earth—it's "shoddy," ephemeral, and generally irritating—he does believe that we serve a purpose for what he calls the Whole. We exist for each other, as Marcus says, and to give back what we've received from the cosmos.

    Questions About Life, Consciousness, and Existence

    1. What does Marcus see as his purpose on earth?
    2. What is the role of the Whole in human existence? In the life of the universe?
    3. What does Marcus mean when he says that human beings were made for each other?
    4. Why does Marcus continuously talk about the "shoddy" nature of human life on earth? What exactly is he getting at?

    Chew on This

    Marcus feels that earthly existence is both a trap and a duty.

    Although all things are connected in Marcus's philosophy, he sees intellectual isolation as one of the greatest goods for the directing mind.

  • Duty

    Marcus Aurelius is a purpose-driven guy. As he tells us in his Meditations, he's got no desire to fritter his short life away with "distractions"—pleasure, irritations, or short-lived trash like fame or reputation. As a man of principles, he understands that he has a role to play in the universe—and a duty to get it done.

    Marcus has some pretty clear ideas about how to go about doing that, too: avoid pleasure, fear, and emotional drama; honor the gods; serve your fellow man; stay focused on the present. We can see that this dude is anxious to act on each and every one of these guidelines simply by the number of times he mentions them—not to mention the vehemence with which he disses himself for failing. In the end, he knows that his highest duty is to be a good man living in harmony with Reason.

    Questions About Duty

    1. What does Marcus see as his duty towards other human beings? How is he meant to treat them or act toward them?
    2. What is man's duty concerning the gods, according to Marcus?
    3. What responsibilities does Marcus have as a rational creature?
    4. What are his duties toward himself, as both emperor and philosopher?

    Chew on This

    Marcus never speaks of duty to his family, because his members are just parts of a transient world and shouldn't be valued.

    Marcus believes that the gods should be revered even if they don't exist—just in case they do.

  • Change (Transience)

    As Marcus Aurelius puts it in the Meditations, as soon as you get attached to something, you lose it. That's just life. Even human life itself it short-lived, constantly moving toward decay, unstable

    But according to Marcus, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Sure, it's annoying to lose everything that's important to you, and sometimes it's even pretty sad, but the thing is that change is necessary and inevitable. The universe is all about change, Marcus declares, and he observes that a constant movement of substances throughout the cosmos renews the life of the world. Without that kind of change, there is stagnation and death for everyone.

    Basically, change is eternal, and it affects everything and everyone. Every person matures and decays and is recycled back into the cosmos. It's always been that way, and it always will. It's in our nature to participate in this process, like it or not.

    Questions About Change (Transience)

    1. Why does Marcus think that life on earth is "shoddy"?
    2. According to Marcus, why is change necessary?
    3. What is the proper response to the transience of human life, according to this work? How are we to act in the face of constant change and decay?
    4. In what ways is change useful? In what ways is it a stumbling block or hindrance?

    Chew on This

    Change is both a positive and negative quality in Marcus's universe, even though he spends most of his time complaining about the transience of the world.

    The fact that the universe is constantly changing should lead Marcus to despair, but in fact it gives him hope.

  • Identity

    Marcus Aurelius may have been the Emperor of Rome, but he still worried about who he really was—and about his purpose in the world. The guy we see in Meditations is someone struggling to fulfill his role as an active political figure—his fated path in life—since that role is often in conflict with the contemplative, philosophical life he wants to live.

    Marcus understands that it isn't in the cards for him to be a full-time philosopher, but he can consider who he is and try to figure out his purpose as a citizen of the world. He eventually boils it all down to this: he wants to be a good man who does only what is proper to human nature, as dictated by the gods. Not bad for a full-time emperor.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How are humans different from other creatures in the universe? Why is it important for Marcus to keep this in mind?
    2. What does Marcus mean when he says that he's "out of tune" with his fellows?
    3. How are identity and fate linked?
    4. What does Marcus mean when he talks about work that is "proper to the nature of man"? Why is it essential for him to focus on this kind of work?

    Chew on This

    Humans don't have the opportunity to create their own identities, since fate and destiny have taken care of all that for them.

    Marcus is more concerned about his role as citizen of the universe than he is about his place as first citizen of Rome.

  • Time

    In Meditations, Marcus gets into some pretty far-out thoughts about time and what it means. Sometimes, he thinks of time as a "violent stream" that drags all of creation along to its inevitable end. In that case, there's no point in getting attached to anything, since it is gone in the blink of an eye.

    But time is also cyclical, which means that human life doesn't need to be all that long for each person to get a solid picture of the human experience. It doesn't matter, Marcus says, if you live 40 years or 300: there's nothing new to be experienced.

    Marcus warns himself not to lose the present moment, since that is really all any human being ever has. Only the present is knowable and can be influenced by us. The past is shrouded in darkness, and so is the future.

    Questions About Time

    1. What does Marcus mean when he says that time is a "violent stream"?
    2. Why is it unwise to concern yourself with fame?
    3. Why does Marcus privilege the present moment over the past or future?
    4. In what ways is the cyclical nature of time an annoyance to Marcus? In what ways is it a comfort?

    Chew on This

    Marcus thinks of time not as an enemy, but as an agent that degrades the value of created things.

    Marcus sees the cyclical nature of time as a great help to his philosophical practices.