Meditations

Harry Cheslaw
5 min readJul 26, 2020

By Marcus Aurelius

Meditations is a collection of personal notes written by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. It was for personal reflection with their being no intention of his writings reaching a wider audience. Meditations lays out Aurelius’s philosophy and shows his struggles trying to reach his self-appointed ideals.

Being Thankful

Aurelius thanks all those who have been a part of his life for the lessons they have taught him acknowledging that he has been blessed throughout his life by those he has encountered.

From my mother: piety, generosity, the avoidance of wrong-doing and even the thought of it; also simplicity of living, well clear of the habits of the rich… From my tutor: not to become a Green or Blue supporter at the races, or side with the Lights or Heavies in the amphitheatre; to tolerate pain and feel few needs; to work with my own hands and mind my own business; to be deaf to malicious gossip…From Alexander the Platonist: rarely, and never without essential cause, to say or write to anyone that ‘I am too busy’; nor to use a similar excuse, advancing ‘pressure of circumstances’,in constant avoidance of the proprieties in our relations to ur fellows and contemporaries.

That I acquired a clear and constant picture of what is meant by the life according to nature, so that, with regard to the gods, their communication from that world, their help and their inspiration, nothing now prevents me living the life of nature.

Thoughts of Others

Aurelius writes of how even the greats eventually died describing how “Julius Caesar annihilated whole cities time after time, and slaughtered tens of thousands of horse and foot in the field of battle, and yet the moment came for them too to depart this life”.

He argues:

What of it then? You embarked, you set sail, you made port. Go ashore now. If it is to another life, nothing is empty of the gods, even on that shore: and if to insensibility, you will cease to suffer pains and pleasures,no longer in thrall to a bodily vessel which is a master as far inferior as its servant is superior. One is the mind and divinity: the other a clay of dust and blood.

Do not waste the remaining part of your life in thoughts about other people, when you are not thinking with reference to some aspect of the common good. Why deprive yourself of the time for some other task? I mean, thinking about what so-and-so is doing, and way, what he is saying or contemplating or plotting, and all that life of thought, makes you stray from the close watch of your own directing mind.

On Looking Inwards

Aurelius describes how the ruling power within us takes a flexible approach to life’s circumstances. He describes how it is like a fire “mastering whatever falls into it. A small flame would be extinguished, but a bright fire rapidly claims as its own all that is heaped on it, devours it all, and leaps up yet higher in consequence”.

Men seek retreats for themselves — in the country, by the sea, in the hills — and you yourself are particularly prone to this yearning. But all this is quite unphilosophic, when it is open to you, at any time you want, to retreat into yourself. Not retreat offers someone more quiet and relaxation than that into his own mind, especially if he can dip into thoughts there which put him at immediate and complete ease.

Marcus goes on to further describe the need to gain perspective by looking inwards rather than outwards.

Be your own master, and look at things as a man, as a human being, as a citizen, as a mortal creature. And there are two of the most immediately useful thoughts you will dip into. First, that things cannot touch the mind: they are external and inert; anxieties can only come from your internal judgement. Second, that all these things you see will change almost as you look at them, and the will be no more. Constantly bring to mind all that you yourself have already seen changed. The universe is change: life is judgement….

Remove the judgement, and you have removed the thought ‘I am hurt’: remove the thought ‘I am hurt’, and the hurt itself is removed. What does not make a human being worse in himself cannot make his life worse either: it cannot harm him from outside or inside.

Dying and Unfortunate Events

Aurelius writes that ‘you should always look on human life as short and cheap. Yesterday sperm: tomorrow a mummy or ashes’. Therefore one should ‘pass this tiny fragment of time in tune with nature, and leave it gladly, as an olive might fall when ripe, blessing the earth which bore it and grateful to the tree which gave it growth’.

‘It is my bad luck that this has happened to me.’ No, you should rather say: ‘It is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without pain, neither crushed by the present nor fearful of the future’. Because such a thing could have happened to any man, but not every man could have borne it without pain. So why see more misfortune in the event than good fortune in your ability to bear it?

On Taking Action

At the break of day, when you are reluctant to get up, have this thought ready to mind: ‘I am getting up for a man’s work. Do I still then resent it, if I am going to do what I was born for, the purpose for which I was brought into the world? Or was I created to wrap myself in blankets and keep warm?

‘But this is more pleasant.’ Were you then born for pleasure — all for feeling, not for action? Can you not see plants, birds, ants, spiders, bees all doing their own work, each helping in their own way to order the world? And then you do not want to do the work of a human being — you do not hurry to the demands of your own nature. ‘

But one needs rest too.’ One does indeed: I agree. But nature has set limits to this too, just as it has to eating and drinking, and yet you go beyond these limits, beyond what you need. Not in your actions, thought not any longer: here you stay below your capability.

Getting Help

Do not be ashamed of help.It is your task to achieve your assigned duty, like a soldier in a scaling-party. What, then, if you are lame and cannot climb the parapet by yourself, but this is made possible by another’s help.

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